Travelers hit road, rail, air

Traffic: The airport and train station were free of much frenzy as holiday travelers learn to leave for home early. But motorists couldn't avoid stop-and-go travel.

November 29, 1999|By Erika Niedowski and Mark Ribbing | Erika Niedowski and Mark Ribbing,SUN STAFF

Within seconds of the first sign of slowing traffic on Interstate 95 deep in Prince George's County, John Crane and Charlie Moss were on the case.

The two State Highway Administration technicians surveyed the trouble on Screen 4 on a monitor-filled wall that could have come right out of the movie "War Games." As Crane made a quick call to find out whether an accident had occurred, Moss activated the highway message boards to alert travelers of the backup.

No accident at all. Just lots and lots of cars.

"That's the holiday [traffic] right there," said Moss, a highway operations technician at SHA's Statewide Operations Center in Anne Arundel County. "And when the Redskins let out, that's it."

Marylanders returned en masse yesterday from the Thanksgiving holiday by plane, train and automobile. An estimated 525,000 of them took to the highways,according to AAA Mid-Atlantic. That didn't include the fans on the road for the Ravens and Redskins football games.

Traffic at Baltimore-Washington International Airport was steady, but seemed largely free of the frenzy and delay that often haunts holiday travel.

Adriene V. Jones, a Southwest Airlines customer service supervisor, said the crowds were somewhat smaller than the day before Thanksgiving -- which she called "Black Wednesday."

"It's pretty much on the mark with what we expected," Jones said.

The scene was much the same at Baltimore's Penn Station, where an estimated 5,000 passengers passed through yesterday, said Ken Wiedel, manager of customer service. Most of the trains were on time.

"Passenger loads have been about what we expected, maybe a little less because it was busy" Saturday, Wiedel said. "I think a few people went home early."

At the Statewide Operations Center Hanover Complex, near BWI, Crane and Moss monitored 13 overhead screens for traffic conditions in locations including U.S. 50 at the Bay Bridge, Interstate 95 and Interstate 395 near PSINet Stadium, and I-95/I-495 at U.S. 1.

Alvin Marquess, operations manager for SHA's Coordinated Highway Action Response Team (CHART) program, studied another screen displaying color-coded speed data from monitors installed along roads.

By midafternoon, the live traffic map showed mostly green, which meant traffic was moving normally.

"Looks pretty good in Baltimore," Marquess said.

The slowdown at I-95/I-495 near Route 210 in Prince George's County -- north of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge -- registered on the map as yellow, meaning traffic had slowed to between 30 mph and 54 mph.

"It's going to get a lot worse before it gets better," Marquess said. "We're getting ready to dump 80,000 people on the interstate" from the Redskins game.

Not long after, the road's location on the map turned red, signaling that traffic was barely moving, if at all.

The operations center is nothing like what it used to be, when it was a one-room operation at SHA's downtown headquarters on North Calvert Street. The facility had no live cameras. All traffic reports were from a radio system.

Now, it's in a large, high-ceilinged room with dozens of computer terminals, television screens and telephones. Highway technicians can swivel the cameras or zoom in for a better view of a traffic tie-up or a broken-down vehicle.

"The cameras we use now are the best tools we have," said Moss, a former traffic reporter for Metro Traffic.

Technicians can also change the highway message signs or broadcast live on traveler advisory radio. Most of it can be done with the click of a mouse.

At the airport, skycap supervisor Joe Imes didn't notice much increase in passenger volume.

"It's an average day," he said. "I'd say even below average. Passengers are much more educated now. They don't wait till the last moment to start traveling."

Maybe not all passengers.

Mary Caplan, 28, who was visiting family in Annapolis during the holiday, was held up by traffic and arrived at BWI later than she should have.

With a half-hour before her flight left for Chicago, she was still standing in line.

"I knew that if it was a usual day, I could just wing in, but I didn't know the line would be so darn long," said Caplan, a student at Northwestern University's Kellogg Graduate School of Management. "It's just poor planning on my part."

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