Marylanders hit the road and rails and air Busiest travel day of year goes smoothly

November 28, 1996|By Peter Jensen and Jean Thompson | Peter Jensen and Jean Thompson,SUN STAFF

Steve Biller took the long way round to grandmother's house yesterday, revving up and rolling out along with thousands of Marylanders who make Thanksgiving eve a day of motion on the highways, railways and runways.

First came a flight back to Baltimore from a daylong business trip in Toronto. Then a stop to gas up the Jeep at the I-95 Travel Plaza on his way home to Baltimore's Forest Park. Then a 6 p.m. departure for a two-leg highway journey to Richmond, Va., and then Cary, N.C., with his wife and two preschoolers.

"We packed [Tuesday] -- we're desperate and experienced," he said at almost dusk, when lights in the Mobil station glare brighter than the fading sunlight. "We're doing this so the grandparents can see their grandchildren."

And so it went: From Baltimore-Washington International Airport to the Maryland House rest stop on Interstate 95, record numbers of travelers could be found driving, flying, riding and often waiting and waiting in line on the busiest travel day of the year.

William Freitag, BWI operations manager, said all went smoothly yesterday. "Even the weather cooperated," he said.

Experts predicted big crowds this year, a byproduct of a relatively strong economy. An American Automobile Association survey predicted that 31.8 million people would travel over the long weekend that officially began yesterday, about 3 percent more than last year.

"We've been blessed with good weather today," said Karen R. Black, a spokeswoman for BWI, which expected to handle 53,000 passengers by day's end, about 50 percent above the daily average. "In rain or sleet, you have delays and diversions. You don't want to think about that."

By early evening, the activity was just as frantic at the Fort McHenry Tunnel on I-95. Automobile license tags from North Carolina, New York and Virginia seemed as numerous as those from Maryland.

"The tunnel usually sees 100,000 cars on a typical weekday, and we'll probably beat last year's record of 141,819," said Kerry E. Brandt of the Maryland Transportation Authority, which oversees the toll facility.

Toll takers think of the day-before-Thanksgiving rush this way: That's almost 1,750 extra cars for every one of the toll plaza's 24 lanes. An adept toll taker can handle about 700 cars an hour, they said. Whew.

"I tell people 'Thank you' and 'Be careful: If it takes a little longer, fine, getting there safely is the main thing,' " said Cpl. Geraldine Colabella of Perry Hall, who volunteered to do duty in the booths yesterday and today.

She will put her turkey in the oven at 4 a.m. today when she rises, and get to work by a quarter to 6. Relatives will watch over the bird while it cooks, then she'll arrive home to share the celebration.

On Thanksgiving eve, she said, the drivers "are usually in a good mood because they're off work. It's when they're coming home Sunday that they can seem rushed."

Their guardian angel in the tunnel is Aurora J. Bullock, stationed before a wall of 64 blinking television monitors onto which are beamed the bends and straightaways of the eight tunnel lanes. She works in a room high above the highway in a nondescript, cinnamon-colored building to the side of I-95, but cameras in the tunnel give her an unparalleled view of holiday traffic.

About 4: 15 p.m., she pointed at a screen: A car slows to a stop, blocking a lane and starting a jam-up. "Disabled, [tunnel] bore 3, fast lane, northbound," she shouts to teammates who radio for police and a tow truck.

In less than 10 minutes, the tunnel was unclogged, and travelers bound for turkey dinners were back in motion. The dispatchers said they already had pulled three vehicles from the tunnel this day.

"You can look forward to this on Thanksgiving or any day with this much traffic," said Bullock, who will spend the holiday in front of the monitors. "This is really rewarding, knowing that you can help somebody."

State Highway Administration crews kept their fingers crossed that no major accidents would tie up an already congested I-95, though by midday yesterday they were sharing horror stories about a backup on I-895.

Higher gasoline prices -- an average $1.28.2 a gallon for self-serve regular compared to $1.10.8 a year ago, according to an AAA survey -- had no apparent impact on motorists' travel plans.

"Gas prices usually don't have much of an impact, and our numbers show that's holding true this year," said Sharon Y. Perry, an AAA Maryland spokeswoman.

David E. Buck, a highway administration official, said the fact that Delaware authorities temporarily lowered the toll at the Delaware Memorial Bridge from $1.25 to $1 helped avert a huge backup on northbound I-95 in Cecil County.

In the past, fumbling around with quarters has stalled traffic all the way into northeast Maryland.

Another benefit, Buck said, is the growing tendency for people to extend their travel plans from Wednesday and Sunday to Tuesday night and Monday morning, spreading out the traffic.

"You really have to think about going early and staying late," Buck said. "We may survive today, but it's going to be exceptionally heavy on Sunday."

At Penn Station, Brian Kowalczyk of Cockeysville sat on a bench with a faraway look, contemplating a holiday journey to Florida that would take him by train to Union Station in Washington, subway to National Airport and plane to Fort Lauderdale.

At the end of this journey: his girlfriend, a hospital technician who already had begun cooking the Thanksgiving dinner the two Buffalo, N.Y., natives soon would be sharing.

"It's 70 degrees down there, and I'm going to lie on the beach," said Kowalczyk, 25. "This will be fun."

Pub Date: 11/28/96

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