North Fork Outdoors: Stuck in a traffic nightmare

08/02/2012 1:00 AM |

There’s nothing much to say about traffic jams except they’re unavoidable. Anyone who heads from an urban zone for a holiday in “the country”, i.e. the wilderness of Suffolk, Putnam, Fairfield counties or points beyond, is familiar with jams and absolutely hates them. Even worse, of course, is the misery of the daily long-distance auto commuter who lacks transit alternatives.

The agony and the ecstasy of the LIE, Southern State, Northern State or the Bronx River, Sprain and the Hutch are familiar to pretty much all our readers, but the situation always seems most dire in the summer. In truth, when it comes to highways, summer is the third of three distinct seasons, especially farther north: “winter”, “mud”, and “road work!” And, although one can argue about appropriate levels of stimulus for the recovering U.S. economy, there’s lots of evidence for much of the stimulus going to infrastructure — particularly highways — in the summer of 2012.

It’s one thing to wax philosophical about roadwork, sitting at one’s desk, sipping an iced drink, and contemplating travel routes and schedules. It’s quite another to be out on the road, miles from anticipated bottlenecks (and when it comes to bottlenecks, anyone trying to exit Long Island knows full well what the term “island” really means) and have traffic suddenly come to a complete standstill. You haven’t seen any signs of roadwork, the traffic report “on the eights” hasn’t been updated on your road, and even the “twitterati” are not informed about this one.

And if those long haul truckers still carry CBs, you don’t, and you don’t remember the AM setting for highway information. How far ahead is the blockage? Are you temporarily stopped for a minor accident, a gaper’s block, or is it something more serious? Is it going to be three lanes into two, two lanes into one, or all lanes closed for blasting or for road crews to do a complete paving job over 15 miles? In the immortal words of those Apollo astronauts, “Houston, we have a problem!”

If you are aware of road work from previous trips or from weekday traffic reports, you can sometimes plan accordingly, altering schedule or route, but, most often, you are simply stuck, gazing at the dashboard, checking fuel and engine temperature. Better check blood pressure, too. There are really only three approaches at this point. Either you wait it out, force your way to an exit, or check possible alternate routes when you reach the very next exit ramp. Many will tell you that you simply have to tough it out and that you’ll never save any time by trying to escape, but this is a percentage thing. If traffic has come to a complete standstill and shows no sign of moving for 10 minutes or so, percentages in favor of hanging on begin to drop.

Some five years back, we were headed out to Cape Cod for a spring weekend and road work was just getting started on I-90 and I-495 when traffic stopped about 40 minutes from the Bourne Bridge out to Cape Cod. We turned off the AC when the engine temperature began to rise, then we turned off the engine and opened windows enough to breathe; there was enough of a breeze to blow off most of the exhaust fumes. After 15 minutes, we checked a roadside mileage marker and realized that we were about a mile from an exit, so we took the chance and followed some other vehicles onto the shoulder and eventually out the exit onto an old state highway. After more than an hour, we got to the bridge and sailed through to our destination near Falmouth. Later than night we learned from TV news reports that the jam wasn’t due to road work at all, but to a tanker fire that tied up traffic for more than three hours!

If you want to get away from bad jams and gamble on side routes, better have some good road maps. This summer for instance, the major north-south interstate in western New York, Route I-81, has lots of projects going, everything from dynamite and asphalt, to shoulder reconstruction. Thanks to heavy truck traffic, it’s all needed. But after braving successive 10-mile single-lane closures and attendant half-hour stalls, I’ve looked at New York and Pennsylvania maps to check alternatives. Sure, if we could hit that nasty 100 miles from Syracuse past Wilkes-Barre in the wee small hours or long after dark, we’d be fine, but we can’t. So at this moment, I’m looking at the ancient route, US 11, as a nice direct way—except that it takes us right through Binghamton and Wilkes Barre-Scranton.

Before I lose my temper, stalled in traffic, and start on that kind of adventure to get around road work, I’ll consult our navigator, Janet. Then we’ll probably change drivers—and flip a coin!