Free Del. tolls smooth drive and fliers elect not to 'opt-out'

Long backup spurs officials to waive collection at toll plaza

  • Jonathan Schaeffer gets few customers as he distributes pamphlets protesting TSA security screening procedures at BWI-Marshall Airport Wednesday morning.
Jonathan Schaeffer gets few customers as he distributes pamphlets… (Mike Dresser, Baltimore…)
November 25, 2010|By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

Thanksgiving holiday travelers caught some breaks Wednesday as Delaware moved to uncork a potentially historic bottleneck by waiving tolls on its turnpike, and a much-publicized protest at the nation's airports appeared to have fizzled.

The decision to suspend collection of northbound Delaware Turnpike tolls between 3:15 p.m. and 11 p.m. Wednesday came after traffic backed up nearly six miles onto Maryland's John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway. Though the toll plaza at Newark is a well-known bottleneck where hourlong delays are not unusual, it was the first time in at least 15 years the state has waived collections.

Air travelers at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport and other airports were also spared delays as few passengers chose to participate in a boycott of the Transportation Security Administration's whole-body imaging machines, which opponents have labeled a "virtual strip search."

Though activists called on passengers to "Opt Out" of imaging and to choose pat-downs at security checkpoints in an effort to slow down the system, most fliers seemed more interested in reaching their destinations than picking a fight with the federal government.

Lauren Gaches, a spokeswoman for TSA, said the number of passengers choosing pat-downs over the imaging machines was roughly the same as it's been since the technology was introduced — about 1 percent.

"We've seen a lot of support from the traveling public," she said. Late Wednesday, TSA sent out a roundup of reports from around the country under the headline "Opt Out Turns Into Opt In" showing a tepid national response to the protest.

At BWI-Marshall, a total of four protesters holding two signs were standing outside near the Southwest departure area about 7:15 p.m. Wednesday.

When asked why more flyers were not protesting, one of the protesters, Patrick Hussey of Parkville, with the Campaign for Liberty, said that "most people are sheep today. Most people are scared sheep. They don't understand what it means to be free anymore."

Inside, lines were moving briskly with no signs of commotion.

Pamela Flick of Baltimore, who was catching a flight to Little Rock, Ark., said she planned to go through the whole-body scanner.

"I'm still not going to opt out of it. I'm going to do it," she said. "We all need the extra precautions."

Flick seemed to reflect the majority of travelers Wednesday morning at BWI.

Paul Wiedefeld, executive director of BWI, said he had seen no indications that travelers were heeding activists' calls to "opt out" of electronic whole-body imaging and slow the security process by insisting on time-consuming pat-downs.

"Most people, they just want to get home," he said.

The delays were far more severe Wednesday for auto travelers heading through Delaware — at least until the tolls were waived. Shortly before 3 p.m., the Maryland Transportation Authority estimated the delay at the toll plaza at 30 minutes.

In the days leading up to the holiday, transportation officials in the two states had issued public warnings that construction at the toll plaza could result in a traffic jam of historic proportions — perhaps stretching a far back as the Susquehanna River — because of a construction project that has closed three of the nine northbound toll lanes.

The public warnings may have had their intended effect. Teri Moss, a spokeswoman for the Maryland toll authority, said the vehicle count at the Kennedy Highway toll plaza leading to Delaware was 3,000 between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. Wednesday — compared with 4,200 the same time a year ago. She said that could indicate many travelers changed their routes or travel times.

Moss said that after Delaware waived the tolls, the backups into Maryland eased considerably. By late afternoon, a traffic camera on I-95 at Elkton, which had earlier captured a slow-moving backup, showed that traffic was heavy but flowing freely.

Michael Williams, a spokesman for the Delaware transportation department, said travelers shouldn't necessarily expect that the state will be as generous with southbound travelers this weekend.

The traffic conditions affecting the northbound lanes Wednesday were "certainly exceptional," he said.

"We've never had lane closures that couldn't be opened before a major holiday," he said, adding that it was the first time in the 15 years he's been with the agency that tolls were waived.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

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