Easing the pain of holiday travel

GETTING THERE

November 20, 2006|By MICHAEL DRESSER

This week, tens of thousands of Marylanders will take off Wednesday or early Thursday and head northward on Interstate 95 to New Jersey or New York or New England or wherever Mom stuffs her turkey. Last year, these same people ran into nightmarish backups at the toll plazas in Delaware -- especially on the Sunday evening drive home.

They reported to the office the following Monday with stories of woe about hours-long backups with the kids screaming for a bathroom.

This year, with the benefit of amnesia that 12 months can bring, many of the same people will take the same route at about the same time and get the same result.

One week from today they will be regaling those of us who stayed home with the same sad stories.

It's called human nature, and it's not likely to change.

But with an estimated 600,000 Marylanders about to take to the roads for Thanksgiving journeys of 50 miles or more, surely some of them will be ready to try something different. Here are some potential strategies:

Travel on Tuesday rather than Wednesday, urge the folks that run the Delaware Turnpike. Mike Williams, a spokesman for the Delaware Department of Transportation, said traffic is still relatively reasonable two days before the holiday.

If you have the notion that you might as well travel Thanksgiving morning, think twice. Williams said that's when some of the worst backups occur -- starting as early as daybreak. Baltimore travelers should leave before 5 a.m. Since other drivers just read that sentence, leave even earlier.

Come back Saturday. It's no guarantee of a smooth return, but it'll likely be better than if you wait until Sunday. Last year, the Saturday traffic volume at the Newark Toll Plaza was 120,888 vehicles -- not much lighter than Sunday's 127,859. But, Williams said, Saturday traffic is spread out, while Sunday travel is concentrated in the late afternoon and early evening.

Move the holiday to Friday. Travel Thursday afternoon, when everyone else is stuffing their faces and getting into family fights. After all, haven't you seen enough of the Detroit Lions losing?

There are toll-free alternate routes through Delaware, and the authorities actually let out-of-staters use them. Williams noted that U.S. 40 and U.S. 13 -- along with other combinations of local roads -- can take you through the state (or at least to the Delaware Memorial Bridge). Of course, you can then get hung up in local stop-and-go traffic. Pick your poison.

Pretend Delaware isn't there and that Cecil County has lots of oceanfront property. Invest in a road atlas -- one of those books with a pre-GPS technology called maps -- and plot a course through Pennsylvania that avoids the Parasitic Principality altogether.

Some think that strategy is counterproductive. For instance, AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman Troy Green said it makes no sense to avoid 95 when traveling to certain destinations. I-95, he said, is "the only viable way to get to New Jersey."

Perhaps, but there are still some of us who would travel many miles to avoid the aggravation of the Delaware bottleneck and all the other choke points on I-95. Could there be a better way?

One more thing.

If you are traveling the I-95 corridor this weekend and your car is not equipped with E-ZPass, you're not with the program. Unless you're a fugitive, a terrorist or full-time paranoid, there's no good reason not to take advantage of this congestion-relieving technology.

Unfortunately, the power of E-ZPass is limited in Delaware because the highway gets backed up so far you can't reach the express lanes.

However, once you reach your lane, it can ease the pain a little as you glide past people fumbling for change. They're good for use in states from Virginia to Maine, as well as in Illinois.

You can sign up for the electronic toll devices at ezpassmd.com.

If you want to stick one on your windshield before Thanksgiving, you can get the device and start using it the same day by stopping at any Mars supermarket, some Giant Food stores and central Maryland offices of the Motor Vehicle Administration.

You can also get them at the administrative offices of most Maryland toll facilities. But these locations are generally hard-to-reach, weekday, daytime locations that are closed at the times people are thinking "I really ought to look into E-ZPass."

The Maryland Transportation Authority says it has been aggressively marketing E-ZPass in recent years. Spokeswoman Kelly Melhem said Maryland registered a 10 percent gain in their use between 2004 and 2005.

They should be doing more. It's in the interest of all of us that more drivers use the passes.

Why not just have the people staffing the tollbooths automatically hand people an application as they go through at nonpeak times? Surely, the consortium that runs the program could come up with a universal form that could be used by all the participating states.

Why not put up a big tent at the Maryland House and Chesapeake House every weekend to promote E-ZPass with the kind of cheesy giveaways people love? We all know we'll be facing more tolls in the future. Why not make it a little fun?

gettingthere@baltsun.com

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