Holiday traffic takes its tolls on travelers

Higher fees and congestion on I-95 in Delaware have some questioning the state's management

The bucks flow here

December 29, 2005|By MICHAEL DRESSER | MICHAEL DRESSER,SUN REPORTER

Delaware happens.

If you're traveling by car along Interstate 95 north of Baltimore this holiday weekend, you are likely to run headlong into that inescapable fact.

Once you cross the Cecil County border heading north on I-95, you are in the grips of a tiny state with a healthy appetite for tolls and a leisurely system for collecting them. As many motorists in the Baltimore-Washington area learned - or relearned - at Christmas and Thanksgiving, traffic backs up for miles so that Delaware can collect a toll it recently raised from $2 to $3 per car for the use of its turnpike.

FOR THE RECORD - In an article in yesterday's editions, the first name of Delaware Department of Transportation's public relations director, Darrel Cole, was misspelled.
The Sun regrets the error.

The southbound backups as travelers return from New York and New Jersey can be especially frightful. On the day after Christmas, traffic was a rolling jam from the turnpike toll plaza in Newark, Del., to the Delaware Memorial Bridge a dozen miles away - effectively combining two of I-95's worst bottlenecks into one.

Paul T. Myers, a AAA member in Reston, Va., wrote to the organization to complain that on Tuesday he had to sit in an 8- to 10-mile backup while returning from New Jersey because turnpike officials had only three booths open to accept cash. Myers, who said the traffic jam added at least 35 minutes to his trip, asked AAA officials to press Congress to act.

"There comes a time when the interests of the country's travelers, both recreational and business, should take precedence when a state has demonstrated that it cannot efficiently and effectively manage the core highways upon which we are so dependent," he wrote.

Delaware officials insist that the toll plaza delays over the Christmas holiday were no more than 20 to 30 minutes. But they concede that the Newark toll plaza - strategically located where it can collect money from out-of-state pockets while sparing most Delaware residents - is a key bottleneck in the busy I-95 corridor.

New Year's travelers can expect much of the same, especially if they are heading south Monday evening. The backups persist long into the night on peak travel days.

"That's just a fact of life in Delaware," said Darrell Cole, public relations director for the Delaware Department of Transportation. "You should be patient and expect some delays. There's no way around that. It's the Main Street of the East Coast."

Numbers talk

Cole said that on the average day, about 75,000 cars pass through the Newark toll plaza. On summer weekends, that can rise to 120,000. And on peak holiday travel days, the count can reach 150,000.

Subscribing to the EZPass electronic toll collection system can help, but only a little. The backups in Delaware are often so severe that subscribers have to wait in traffic for long periods before they can reach the EZPass lanes, which in Delaware require motorists to slow to 15 mph.

There are many other choke points on I-95 in the Northeast corridor - a factor that sells a lot of train tickets. But few excite the wrath of travelers as much as Delaware's toll facility. It was after experiencing one of the toll plaza backups that New Republic senior editor Jonathan Chait labeled Delaware a "rapacious parasite state with a long history of disloyalty and avarice."

One aggravating factor is that Delaware is such a small state - a geographical speed bump separating Marylanders from their more likely destinations in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York.

Another is that Delaware's tolls, by one commonly used measure, are among the highest in the country - roughly 27 cents a mile for about 11 miles of toll turnpike. Delaware officials insist that even with October's increase, their I-95 tolls run in the middle of the pack - about 15 cents a mile. Of course, they're counting the state's entire length - about 25 miles - of I-95 roadway, toll and nontoll, Cole said.

(Maryland charges $5 for use of the northbound, 50-mile John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway - Interstate 95 northeast of Baltimore. Unlike Delaware, Maryland collects a toll in only one direction.)

Many motorists suspect - with more than a little reason - that Delaware finds it easier to impose toll increases on users of I-95 than to raise revenue from its citizens.

Last summer, Delaware's Legislature rejected state transportation officials' recommendation that they raise tolls on Delaware 1, which is used mostly by in-state residents, but allowed the increase on I-95.

Cole said about 90 percent of the motorists on the Delaware Turnpike are from out of state.

Paying their way

Lon Anderson, government affairs director for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said his organization objects to the use of tolls to fund nonrelated projects.

"Clearly, Delaware has a strategy, and that is getting out-of-staters to pay the cost of Delaware government operations," he said.

Cole insisted that the state's citizens are paying their fair share.

"The idea that out-of-staters are carrying the burden of funding the Delaware transportation system is absolutely ridiculous," he said.

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