Gridlock on I-95

August 23, 1993

You're a tourist from north of the Mason-Dixon Line planning to soak up some of the Old Bay-seasoned splendor of the Land of Pleasant Living. You stop your car at Maryland House or Chesapeake House along Interstate 95 on a Friday and load up on brochures detailing the hot attractions. You have a glorious weekend. Then you attempt to return home Sunday, get caught in an hour backup at the Perryville toll plaza and curse Maryland all the way home.

It's not a pretty picture, but it's the one this state presents as long as work drones on at the toll plaza north of the Millard E. Tydings Memorial Bridge over the Susquehanna River. The toll plaza expansion began in April 1992, when Jerry Brown was still beating Bill Clinton in the caucuses, and it's still going. Until it's completed, possibly by the end of next month, you can bank on a big back-up any Friday evening and almost any time Sunday.

To be sure, the $11 million project is needed. Even though year-round traffic on I-95 is down slightly, summertime traffic on the route has jumped 10 percent in the past four years alone -- possibly the result of Northeasterners opting for cheaper vacation getaways closer to home.

The state transportation department, however, hasn't been as responsive to the Perryville mess as it was in the mid-'80s when it used heavy marketing campaigns to prepare Marylanders for "Reach the Beach" construction delays and for the rebuilding of the Jones Falls Expressway through Baltimore. Admittedly, it's not as easy to get the word out to the large out-of-state audience that uses the interstate. But the state could have done a better job of coaxing more motorists to use U.S. 40 as an alternate, or of funneling the traffic into the toll lanes in a quicker, more orderly manner through the use of electronic arrows or painted lanes.

The mammoth tie-ups have hurt the nearby Perryville Outlet Center, a major tourist draw and Cecil County's fifth-largest employer. People are less apt to pull off and shop after sitting in a rolling backup for an hour.

More than that, the problem leaves a bad taste in the mouths of those visitors Maryland and its hospitality industry spent all that money attracting in the first place, hoping they'd return again. Highways engineers might not appreciate the connection between traffic congestion and economic development: They should consider themselves lucky that the governor, who does understand the connection, hasn't gotten stuck in this mess.

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