Heading south? Give I-95 a pass


December 10, 2007|By MICHAEL DRESSER

Readers of my last column agreed enthusiastically that Interstate 95 south of Washington takes the crown as the worst traffic nightmare in the Mid-Atlantic states during peak holiday travel.

Quite a few of them offered the same alternate route: a pleasant jaunt through Southern Maryland via U.S. 301, crossing into Virginia on the Governor Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge.

Among the readers who recommended such a strategy were Ann Heether and Ted Lingelbach of Parkville.

"We agree that I-495 and I-95 South in Northern Virginia are a Nightmare," they wrote. Their recommended route: I-97 south to U.S. 50-301 west to U.S. 301 south. "It takes a couple of minutes more, but is easier on the nerves and patience," they wrote.

In a way, this alternative to I-95 is a nostalgic journey. For a generation before the completion of the late and unlamented original Woodrow Wilson Bridge over the Potomac in 1961, U.S. 301 was the preferred route to the South from Baltimore and points north.

U.S. 301 in Charles County is still lined with older motels that are a legacy of that time. Back in the heyday of 301, a traveler from New York might have stopped to spend a few hours at one of Southern Maryland's notorious slot machine dens before grabbing a good night's sleep.

I've taken this route and believe that at certain times it would be a much less frustrating route than I-95 to Richmond and points south. (I'm not sure that the extra miles on I-97 and 50 beat the straight shot on Maryland Route 3, though. For what it's worth, MapQuest also suggests getting off I-97 where it jogs east at Route 32.)

U.S. 301 is not without its own pitfalls. Back in the highway's heyday, Charles County was a rural backwater. Now it's primarily a bedroom suburb. Driving through Waldorf and La Plata can be a slog from red light to red light past every retail chain you left at home.

Now stop-and-go traffic isn't so bad compared with the dead stops you're likely to encounter between the Capital Beltway and Fredericksburg on I-95.

But I can't give the U.S. 301 the Getting There seal of approval because the Nice Bridge sometimes doesn't live up to its name.

Completed in 1940, the venerable toll bridge ($3 southbound only) is an antiquated span with one lane in each direction and no shoulders. If you hit it at the right time, it's a delightful Potomac crossing. But, like any narrow bottleneck over water, it's a crapshoot.

Kelly McCleary, a spokesman for the Maryland Transportation Authority, said there are typically no severe delays on the Nice Bridge on weekdays. But she said that backups of up to a quarter-mile are not uncommon on weekends and that delays can be more severe during peak travel.

"In the past we've seen up to four-mile backups for holidays and for summer travel," she said.

Readers are correct, however, in observing that once you're over the Nice Bridge, you're in great shape. They say the ride on U.S. 301 and Virginia Route 207 back to rejoin I-95 south of Fredericksburg is a breeze, and they love U.S. 17 as a route into Norfolk (also great for Virginia Beach and the Outer Banks).

Apart from U.S. 301, readers didn't have a lot of alternatives to offer congestion-phobes heading due south. But Lauren Wyatt offered one possibly helpful idea for people heading for central and western North Carolina.

"If you are heading to Greensboro or Charlotte, N.C., or points west of there, [one option] is to take I-70 or I-66 over to I-81 south. This easily connects to U.S. 220 in Roanoke, Va., to head down to Greensboro. You can pick up I-85 South in Greensboro to get to Charlotte, or stay on I-81 a little longer, then take I-77 South just before Wytheville, Va., for a straight shot to Charlotte."

This suggestion has merit, but there may be a better alternative. If you can time your crossing of the American Legion Bridge to avoid peak travel times, you can take I-66 to Gainesville, Va., and pick up U.S. 29. South of Warrenton, Va., U.S. 29 moves at interstate speed with light traffic most of the way through Virginia. It's a straighter shot to Greensboro than U.S. 81, and you avoid the nerve-racking truck traffic on the interstate.

This route would probably save about 45 minutes compared with I-81, and there would be less likelihood of snow on the east side of the Blue Ridge. Feedback from Carolina-savvy readers would be appreciated.

Work-zone cameras?

Maryland Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari recently outlined the O'Malley administration's plans to seek General Assembly approval of a plan to use cameras to deter speeders in highway work zones.

The proposal has prompted a spirited reaction from motorists, but it also brought a message from the head of one of the state's top highway contractors.

"This is not a money issue," wrote Pierce Flanigan III. "We should do everything possible to eliminate drunks or to make work zone marking better. But there is no way possible to allow people to safely drive at high speed through the disruption and distraction of a work zone. We need the fear of speed cameras to wake up those who are driving in a trance on autopilot."

It's refreshing to see a boss standing up for his workers, but it would also be interesting to get the perspective of the men and women in hard hats and reflective vests who work day and night in these zones. What do you think, folks? Money grab or safety measure?


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