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Posted at 4:40 PM ET, 11/22/2010

Thanksgiving's biggest bottleneck

By Robert Thomson

Holiday getaway guide | Travel tips l Capital Weather Gang

I-95 Toll Plaza - Nov.jpg
Construction of highway speed E-ZPass lanes disrupts traffic at Newark Toll Plaza. (DelDOT)

What do Thanksgiving travelers fear the most: An airport pat-down, or Delaware?

If we did a poll, I think Delaware would win in a landslide. The pat-down is over faster. Driving through the I-95 toll plaza in Delaware this week could take hours. We've talked a lot about the impending congestion and avoidance techniques. Here's a summary of what we know now, but we'll post any developments as the big travel week continues.

What's wrong with Delaware?
The Delaware toll plaza was born bad, but this week may be the worst in its infamous history as a major East Coast bottleneck. It's in a good cause: The Delaware Department of Transportation is building highway-speed E-ZPass lanes in the middle of the Newark Toll Plaza, which should begin to ease traffic flow when they're done next summer.

For now, the construction is constricting traffic flow, as you can see in the photo above. All the lanes that can be open for the holidays will be open, but there will be fewer open booths at the toll plaza, and the regular E-ZPass lanes to the left on the northbound side will merge from three to one just after the toll plaza. (On the southbound side, the lane configuration is quite tight till it opens up somewhat just before drivers reach the tolls. Again, the dedicated E-ZPass lanes are on the left.)

The holiday congestion may never again be as bad when the project is done, but memories of this holiday season should last a long time.

Advice for the plaza
This may be the most important thing in your planning: The toll plaza, charging $4 each way for cars, is a huge revenue source for Delaware, yet Delaware officials are warning drivers to avoid it during the peak periods of Thanksgiving week.

The Delaware Department of Transportation says the severe backups are likely to begin Tuesday morning and continue through next Monday evening. On Wednesday, the department predicts, the backups will be less before 9 a.m. and after 5 p.m. Even Thanksgiving Day is projected to have a period of heavy congestion, lasting from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. northbound. Southbound on Friday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., could be especially troublesome. Southbound on Saturday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. looks bad. Sunday's worst southbound hours could be 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.

But with the heavy holiday volumes and the tight space, any hour could prove problematic.

Even if you have E-ZPass, you aren't going to gain too much advantage at the most congested times. You will be crawling along with everyone else for miles before you reach the point where the lanes open up for the toll plaza and you can reach the booths dedicated to E-ZPass users.

Avoiding the plaza
These routes have been recommended by travelers for those northbound drivers wishing to dodge the toll plaza:
-- I-95 to Route 279 toward Newark, then right onto Iron Hill Road, then left onto Chestnut Hill Road, then right onto Route 896 (South College Avenue), then back onto I-95. (Last time I posted this one, some travelers wrote in to say people shouldn't use it because it involves local streets. They preferred the next one.)
-- Take Route 279 to Elkton Road, which becomes Route 2. Then go north about two miles, right on Route 4 (Christiana Parkway) for about a mile, then right again on College Avenue, with I-95 ahead.
-- Other travelers from the D.C. area go across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and take Route 301 north over the scenic Eastern Shore up to I-95/495 in Delaware, east of the toll plaza.

Warning: All these dodges are well known to many veteran travelers. Given the holiday volumes, all are likely to be congested, but they may still provide some relief, given our expectations about the Newark Toll Plaza.

Wider routes
There's an east and a west way from the D.C. area north to Pennsylvania and then east to New Jersey and New York.

Eastern way. Take I-95 or the Baltimore Washington Parkway to the Baltimore Beltway (I-695) and take that west and north around the city to I-83 and go north to the Harrisburg, Pa., area. From there, you can link up with I-76, I-81 and I-78 to head east.

Western way. From the Leesburg area, take U.S. 15 north across the Potomac. Or for Marylanders, take I-270 west to Frederick and pick up U.S. 15. (Many people regard this as back-tracking. Why go west to go east? But advocates say it's still better than spending time on the hated I-95.) U.S. 15 will take you to the Harrisburg area, where again, you can pick up I-76, I-81 and I-78.

Warning: These inland routes take you to higher elevations than coastal I-95. Stay in touch with the weather forecast.

Here's a look at the lane configuration at the Newark Toll Plaza, showing the highway speed E-ZPass lanes under construction in the middle, between the northbound and southbound toll booths.

Delaware toll lanes.jpg

By Robert Thomson  | November 22, 2010; 4:40 PM ET
Categories:  Driving, Getaways  | Tags:  Dr. Gridlock, travel tips  
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Comments

I haven't paid that toll in years (very easy to get around). I didn't even know there was a huge construction project. That picture looks like a disaster.

Using Federal stimulus dollars to pay for high-speed ez pass lanes is a farce.

Delaware needs to stop ripping off travels on the interstate highway system by using this toll revenue to subsidize roads throughout the state.

Posted by: seraphina21 | November 22, 2010 5:01 PM | Report abuse

I question to what extent the usual short detours (the Iron Hill Road route or the Christiana Parkway route) will be effective this week. The reason is that the backups at the toll plaza will extend WAY beyond the interchanges you need to use to access those bypass routes. Regular poster "thetan" says that in recent years, the Sunday-after-Thanksgiving backup heading south has usually stretched up onto the New Jersey Turnpike. That means that you have to sit in that interminable crawl just to reach the "toll avoidance route." Going north prior to Thanksgiving, I wouldn't be surprised to see backups stretching well over 10 miles there. With the two toll-avoidance routes cited earlier in this paragraph, you're exiting I-95 about two miles before the toll plaza going north or about one mile before it going south, so if you rely on those routes you're going to be stuck.

Bottom line, if you're not familiar with routes that do not use I-95 through Maryland, Delaware, and New Jersey, now is a very good time to look at a map to get a sense for the other options. (Relying on your sat-nav for a detour once you're on the road isn't a great option because sat-navs don't generally think in terms of how to avoid 10- to 20-mile backups.) Think of it this way: There's no law that says you have to use I-95 just because that's the way your father went 30 years ago.

One last thought regarding this comment from Dr. Gridlock: "Even if you have E-ZPass, you aren't going to gain too much advantage at the most congested times. You will be crawling along with everyone else for miles before you reach the point where the lanes open up for the toll plaza and you can reach the booths dedicated to E-ZPass users." --I think the problem continues even when you reach the toll plaza when you get some SFB who wants to pay cash but who tries to sneak down the "E-ZPass Only" lane and then cut over at the last second to avoid waiting on line with everyone else. When that happens, the "E-ZPass Only" lanes slow to a crawl as well because people have to try to get around the jerk.

Posted by: 1995hoo | November 22, 2010 5:38 PM | Report abuse

Using Union NJ as an end reference point from US-15 (the western way via I-78 noted by Dr G above) will be about 60 miles more, but with the level of traffic anticipated at the DE toll plaza, the additional mileage may be worth it.

Posted by: mar237 | November 22, 2010 10:09 PM | Report abuse

From I-95 north, cross the Tydings Bridge over the Susquehanna and then get off at Exit #100 (Maryland Route 272). At light of end of ramp, you can turn right and proceed south on 272 about three miles, where you'll come to US 40. Make a left on US 40 east and proceed about ten miles to the Delaware line. In Glasgow, DE, turn left on Delaware 896 and head north for about three miles to get back to I-95 past the Newark toll plaza.

Coming south from New Jersey on Sunday, get off the Turnpike at interchange 4 (Route 73/Camden/Cherry Hill) and go west for about a half mile or so onto I-295 south. Follow I-295 south to exit 13 (US 130/Bridgeport) and take the Commodore Barry Bridge over the Delaware River. Get back on I-95 in PA and follow it into Delaware, get on I-495 just over the state line. Take I-495 south to Exit #1 (US 13/Dupont Highway), follow US 13 south to Delaware 1 and then pick up US 301 just south of the C&D Canal bridge. Follow US 301 south back into Maryland and the DC region via the Bay Bridge.

Posted by: vuac | November 22, 2010 11:25 PM | Report abuse

I generally try to avoid that area, and will make every effort to do so this year. Thanks for posting this good information.

To Seraphina... where in the article does it say anything about Stimulus?

Posted by: mcrochip | November 23, 2010 8:39 AM | Report abuse

"[W]here in the article does it say anything about Stimulus?"

This entry doesn't mention it, but it's been thoroughly reported elsewhere (including in other entries on this blog) that Delaware is using federal money obtained via the so-called "stimulus" law to reconstruct that toll plaza.

Posted by: 1995hoo | November 23, 2010 8:47 AM | Report abuse

wow, impressive, some of these comments managed to politicize holiday traffic. stimulus! government! roads! i hate you! honk! beep!

Posted by: guwoman | November 23, 2010 9:33 AM | Report abuse

Take 295 or 95 into Baltimore, Get on Charles Street (one way), exit onto 83 North, exit onto 695/Bmore beltway North/East, Take Route 1 North (Belair)... Cross the Susquehannah, enter PA, Take 476 towards Philly, Take 95 Towards Philly/Trenton, take route 1 north. Then you can Pick up the Turnpike at New Brunswick. OR, you can stay on US 1, which merges with US 9 and becomes US 1/9, This eventually becomes the Pulaski Skyway. Take the Pulaski Skyway and follow the signs to the holland tunnel.

There are no tolls heading north, and a small toll heading south on Rte 1 near trenton.

When I have gone this way, a trip to NYC is usually under 5 hours, with the worst being the BW parkway (295) and the wait for the Holland Tunnel. You will also have to contend with some lights on Rte one.

Posted by: charlesmurphy85 | November 23, 2010 12:52 PM | Report abuse

Just remember, while you're out there fuming about the jams and tie-ups, if you're out there you're part of the problem.

Posted by: jckdoors | November 23, 2010 1:33 PM | Report abuse

Wow, didn't know the toll plaza was that heavily "ripped up"....because like some other people, I never pay that toll. I usually opt for the "short" detours, and I usually use local roads (Welsh Tract or Chestnut Hill) as opposed to Christiana Parkway...I once sat through about 10 cycles of the light on Christiana Parkway because so many people were detouring. I take care to obey the speed limits on the local roads, but if the local residents don't like it, well, too bad...they should lobby their state legislature to stop the highway robbery.

I personally say take US 301, and leave room on US 40 for those from Baltimore area who would have to go very far out of their way to take US 301.

Posted by: thetan | November 23, 2010 1:41 PM | Report abuse

Skip the toll, altogether. Get off I-95N at Elkton Rd (Rte 279) toward Newark. Make a right at Rte 4. Make another right onto South College Ave, then take the exit ramp for I-95N. It's a short detour that'll save you from being stuck in traffic and it's not that long of a detour. I haven't gone through that toll at the DE state line in years.

Posted by: Irato | November 23, 2010 2:27 PM | Report abuse

Del. Official 1: "Hey, maybe we should just waive the fee and open the booths for the holidays, huh?"

Del. Official 2: "Uhhh...No. We won't be doing THAT anytime soon." (lets out a potbelly-jiggling laugh)

Posted by: joeyjoe | November 23, 2010 3:04 PM | Report abuse

"Irato," Dr. Gridlock already suggested the route you note. As I said in a prior comment, the problem with your suggestion is that the roadwork at the toll plaza will back up the traffic well beyond the interchange you cite (Exit 109), meaning that the toll avoidance route avoids the toll but not the traffic. If it were a regular travel week, the toll avoidance route would be fine, but Thanksgiving week isn't a regular travel week.

Posted by: 1995hoo | November 23, 2010 5:57 PM | Report abuse

I'll be on my couch, watching football, smelling the aromas coming from my kitchen. Enjoy I-95, y'all.

Posted by: spf_zero | November 23, 2010 6:56 PM | Report abuse

After leaving your driveway, take your first right. Then take the next right and the one after that. Pull into your driveway, call grandma, wish her a happy Thanksgiving and have a nice, peaceful meal.

Posted by: vmax02rider | November 23, 2010 9:29 PM | Report abuse

BTW, just to be clear, the backups all the way to the Jersey Turnpike may not be all the Delaware Tolls. It is a combination of the Delaware Tolls, the DE 1/I-95 interchange (there is a big mall there and the Sunday after Thanksgiving is in shopping season), and the 4 into 2 merge after the Delaware Memorial Bridge. In otherwords, Delaware is totally screwed up.

In the past, the Delaware traffic wasn't too bad because of insane delays on the NJ Turnpike at the south end toll plaza. Traffic was held back into NJ. Ever since they opened the hi-speed E-ZPass lanes and re-constructed the plaza, NJ Turnpike traffic gets through, but all that traffic surges into DE and backs up there.

Posted by: thetan | November 23, 2010 9:46 PM | Report abuse

From Dr. Gridlock: I like what thetan added, especially about the mall traffic in Delaware and the impact on Delaware of the NJ Turnpike's highway speed E-ZPass lanes, uncorking that bottleneck.

Here's something further that I got via e-mail regarding the Del. dodges:

"Since I-95 often backs up before reaching the Route 279 exit, getting off I-95 at Route 272, heading south to Route 40, then north on Route 896 to I-95 would avoid the entire area of congestion and also avoid
narrow local roads definitely not intended to carry any significant amount of traffic. I have used the Chestnut Hill Road route you suggest and can give 3 reasons this route should not be
considered:

"1) a section of the road in Maryland is perhaps the roughest and worst maintained paved roadway outside of Arkansas
"2) there an area on the road with reduced speed limits and local police radar enforcement activities (my wife tells me
that they were very nice and understanding, but she still got the $75
ticket)
"3) Chestnut Hill Road is a narrow, two lane, no passing, residential road with increasing numbers of walkers, runners
and bicyclists.

"I just heard on Good Morning America that 20 mile backups are expected, that would extend well beyond the Route 279 exit on I-95, so getting off at Route 279 heading on 95 would be advised.

"I have also used the Route 301/Chesapeake Bay Bridge route and generally found it to be one of the more pleasant travel experiences on the East Coast."

Posted by: Dr_Gridlock | November 24, 2010 8:29 AM | Report abuse

The most hassle free way going northbound is to exit I-95 in Havre de Grace, Maryland, before that state's ripoff toll. Take US 40 east into Delaware and then make a left on 896 back to the Interstate. If you drive north frequently, you can buy a sticker for the US 40 bridge that costs $10 for an entire year, unlimited trips. And you avoid the Delaware toll here as well.

To get to New York or northern New Jersey, another good alternate is I-95/BW Pkwy to I-695 to I-83 to US 30 to US 222 to I-78. No tolls at all this way except for a small toll (I think only 75 cents) crossing the Delaware River between NJ and PA.

Posted by: tioli | November 24, 2010 2:21 PM | Report abuse

The most hassle free way going northbound is to exit I-95 in Havre de Grace, Maryland, before that state's ripoff toll. Take US 40 east into Delaware and then make a left on 896 back to the Interstate. If you drive north frequently, you can buy a sticker for the US 40 bridge that costs $10 for an entire year, unlimited trips. And you avoid the Delaware toll here as well.

To get to New York or northern New Jersey, another good alternate is I-95/BW Pkwy to I-695 to I-83 to US 30 to US 222 to I-78. No tolls at all this way except for a small toll (I think only 75 cents) crossing the Delaware River between NJ and PA.

Posted by: tioli | November 24, 2010 2:21 PM | Report abuse

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