NEW CASTLE, Del. - The Delaware section of the highway starts here, at the western base of the Memorial Bridge amid a confusing welter of exits and entrances, fly-over ramps and directional signs.
At the southern tip of the Philadelphia-Wilmington megalopolis, Interstate 295 South bends northwest to meet Interstate 95, the East Coast's high-speed Main Street. Heading south, in a little more than 12 miles, I-95 cuts across the thinnest part of Delaware, from the edges of ugly urban sprawl to carefully landscaped campuses of exurban office complexes and finally to forests and farmhouses near the Maryland line.
This short stretch of highway carries some 187,000 vehicles a day - the number will be higher tomorrow, during the Thanksgiving rush - and for many of their occupants it is all they ever see of Delaware. Of course, given the rolling backups the traffic creates, they get a long look at this part of what Thomas Jefferson called a "jewel of a state."
Michael Gilhooly, manager of Delaware House in the median strip about halfway between the bridge and Maryland, estimates some 4.3 million visitors a year stop at the squat, 1960s-era building operated by HMS Host - "depending on gas prices." Maybe 50,000 of them bother with the Delaware tourist office desk tucked in the north corner of the building, past the restrooms, the video games and the vending machines, says Tom Anderson, one of the volunteers dispensing information.
Soon after the first span of the Delware Memorial Bridge opened in 1951, highway engineers realized that antiquated U.S. 40 - a four-lane road with 30 traffic lights, 124 at-grade intersections and 1,300 driveways - couldn't handle the additional traffic. Within two years, Maryland and Delaware officials began "conversations" about a new highway.
The result was the Delaware Turnpike and Maryland's Northern Expressway, touted as closing the last gap in I-95 between Boston and Washington. They opened on a windy Nov. 16, 1963, with President John F. Kennedy on the dais astride the Maryland-Delaware line.
In one of his last public appearances before his assassination in Dallas, Kennedy predicted that the corridor from Boston to Washington would become "one gigantic urban complex." He told the crowd of 10,000 the new road was a "piece of a super highway to stretch the length of the East Coast."
Oscar Goins and Yong Lazartic are among the first to meet the wave of traffic that crosses the river, the cars and trucks rushing toward their tollbooths next to the shiny, glass and steel Delaware River and Bay Authority headquarters.
Goins is the more easy going one, Lazartic the one with higher energy, moving and speaking in short bursts. Both have developed what Goins calls "umpire ears" to deal with argumentative drivers.
"You just speak when you're spoken to, say `thank you, have a nice day,' and let them go on," he says.
The one-way toll for the bridge went from $2 to $3 for automobiles in May.
"When did it go up?" snaps a woman in a yellow Toyota Camry station wagon with Florida tags. "Where are your signs?" she demands three times.
"Up there," Lazartic sings out, pointing overhead to the huge electronic sign boards above the phalanx of toll booths. "Up there," she says again. "Thank you, have a nice day. Thank you, have a nice day."
As the woman drives off shaking her head, Lazartic says she must "always, always concentrate on the cash," not the driver, lest she make a mistake.
There's just enough room in the booths for the toll taker, the computer screen with a display of buttons for the types of vehicles and the cash drawer. Hardly enough room to stretch your legs, but you don't have time for that, says Goins, what with 45,000 cars a day coming at you.
Toll takers have their own systems for keeping track of the money, but they all keep the large denomination bills in front of them when they make change.
"It's the oldest con in the book," says Goins, who slips $5 bills and larger under a paperweight on the counter in front of him while he makes change. "They get talking to distract you, then tell you they gave you a $100 bill. You put the thing up here until the transaction is completed."
Each toll taker develops his own rhythm. Count the axles of the next vehicle in line, push the button on the computer screen, take the money, make change, give the driver a receipt, smile, eye the next vehicle. Do it again. And again. At times, the line seems endless, and on the evening before a holiday, all you can see is a mass of headlights coming at you.
Every fourth or fifth driver wants directions, but toll takers don't have much time for that. One recent afternoon, three drivers in a row asked Lazartic the way to Delaware Park.
"Take 95 to Exit 4B. Thank you, have a good day," she repeats as if the directions are on a tape loop in her mind.
"You can't take much time or the line really starts to back up, so you just give them short versions and go on."