Turkey Day tie-ups

Our view: If you haven't left by now, you're in trouble

November 23, 2010

Thanksgiving travelers surely knew they were in trouble from the moment officials in Delaware announced that everyone should try to avoid Interstate 95 from now through Sunday. That section of Delaware is bad enough, but with construction at the Newark toll plaza and the loss of three of nine travel lanes, holiday traffic will move slower than the last few Brussels sprouts sitting on the holiday table.

Thinking about getting in a car Wednesday? The gloom-and-doom prediction for traffic is getting to be as bad as local TV stations' perennial hype about wintry weather every time a few flurries are in the forecast. The general consensus appears to be that, painful as the airports may be under the Transportation Security Administration's screening procedures, interstate travel could be even worse.

AAA Mid-Atlantic is forecasting a major increase in regional holiday traffic, mirroring a national trend. If the prediction holds, drivers can expect to see 12 percent more of themselves on the road. And for all the talk about the hassle of air travel, the roads are where it's at — some 95 percent of Americans headed out of town for Thanksgiving are driving.

It's enough to make a person curse the economic recovery, however modest it appears to be. A recent increase in the cost of gasoline (currently about $2.87 per gallon in Maryland) isn't expected to have much of an impact. Interestingly, the daytime traffic is forecast to be most reasonable on the actual holiday. Wednesday, Friday, Saturday or Sunday, anyone headed to I-95 is generally better off traveling early in the morning or late in the evening.

But even that strategy isn't foolproof. Delaware officials predict northbound I-95 traffic to be awful as late in the day as 11 p.m. on Saturday and in bad shape through at least 9 p.m. in both directions on Sunday.

There are a number of recommended tactics for dealing with the jam, beyond traveling during off-peak hours or perhaps opting for Amtrak instead. Travel experts at the Maryland State Highway Administration recommend considering alternative routes to avoid the gridlock of I-95 or I-83. If unsure of where to go, motorists can always stop by state-operated welcome centers in Laurel or at Chesapeake House and Maryland House. The Sun's Michael Dresser has written extensively on this topic, including suggestions of alternative routes to Philadelphia, New Jersey, New York and points beyond. A full run-down is at baltimoresun.com/dresser.

There are also two websites, http://www.roads.maryland.gov, to check on up-to-the-minute travel conditions (click on CHART) or http://www.i95travelinfo.net to alert motorists to any problems on the I-95 corridor from Maine to Florida by way of a color-coded map.

But pardon us if we're a bit skeptical about the prospects of speedy travel to the Northeast from Baltimore that takes the scenic route through Kutztown, Pa. It's one thing to try U.S. 40, U.S. 1 or Route 7 to get around I-95 tie-ups, but such a far-western detour could prove costly at the pump and still be pretty slow to boot.

Indeed, the best advice we've heard, aside from traveling at odd hours, is to plan on delays. That applies not only for holiday travelers but also shoppers headed to retail centers on Black Friday and through the weekend.

Better for drivers to be focused primarily on safety and sobriety when they hit the roads. No texting and driving or use of the cell phone by the driver without a hands-free device, as state law (and common sense) requires. Far better to get to and from Thanksgiving dinner in one piece than take any risks on the road.

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