The Susque-headache

August 19, 1993

Remember a few years back when Gov. William Donald Schaefer got stuck in a massive traffic jam en route to his vacation home in Ocean City and blew a gasket? If it wasn't already a priority among state highway bureaucrats, the "Reach the Beach" program became one then.

If only the governor had a vacation abode in Cecil County, maybe the mess at the Millard E. Tydings Memorial Bridge on Interstate 95 would also have been cleaned up by now. Last Sunday, northbound traffic was stacked up at least three miles from the toll plaza.

If you're heading north on I-95 out of Harford County on a Friday evening or virtually any time Sunday, add 15 minutes to an hour to your travel calculations. It mightn't compare to the back-ups at the Bay Bridge in the 1960s before the second span was built, as Gilbert Sandler recalled for The Evening Sun's "Other Voices" page recently, but it still gets ugly.

The project causing the delay is the $11 million rebuilding of the Perryville toll plaza to expand the number of toll booths from eight to 12. While the 1 1/2 -year project is roughly on schedule, to be completed at the end of next month, it has caused more havoc than state planners seemed to anticipate, and they seem more interested in waiting it out than responding to it.

Their electronic message boards haven't been effective in convincing motorists, mostly from out-of-state, to use Route 40 as a detour. It also seems there must be a more orderly way of funneling traffic into the available toll booths through the use of painted lanes or electronic arrows.

The cost of Maryland's worst traffic bottleneck can't be measured solely in personal terms, such as the frayed tempers and family arguments erupting within the 3,000 vehicles that pass through the plaza each hour. The massive delays have also dissuaded travelers from stopping to spend their money at the Perryville Outlet Center, a major tourist stop and the fifth largest employer in Cecil County. The outlet's manager says his center's traffic count drops 6 to 10 percent whenever the bridge has a tie-up.

The contractor on the bridge job has already missed incentives for completing the work ahead of schedule. One only wishes the "do it now" governor had reason to travel north over the Susquehanna River one Sunday evening. Then we wouldn't be hearing about "Reach the Beach." The new rallying cry might be "Scurry over the Susky."

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