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Warnings Stave Off Gridlock on George Washington Bridge

Wed December 05, 2012 - Northeast Edition

WOODLAND PARK, N.J. (AP) It was supposed to be a traffic nightmare. It turned out to be a dream.

Predictions of 5-mi. backups and unprecedented delays on the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge appear to have scared thousands of daily commuters away from the span. Except for the recent congestion caused by superstorm Sandy’s assault on the region’s transit system, motorists have seen faster-than-normal rush-hour commutes ever since the July start of a major construction project in New York City, according to transportation officials, experts and traffic data.

“We see this time and time again,” said Jim Bak, director of community relations at INRIX, a company that collects data on traffic along the Interstate 95 corridor and other highways throughout the country. He told The Record of Woodland Park that “there is a very strong element of psychology behind traffic patterns.”

In the last few years, he said, similar worst-case warnings in Los Angeles, Seattle and London have had the same effect — actually reducing traffic to below-normal levels on roads that were expected to be clogged. It’s a public relations strategy that state transportation officials in New York, who aired the predictions in media outlets throughout the region before the July 15 start of the project, acknowledge opens them to “cry wolf” criticism. But they say there was no effort to mislead the public and that the backups might have matched predictions if people hadn’t changed their routines.

“It kept the scenario from becoming a worst-case scenario,” said Adam Levine, a spokesman of the New York Department of Transportation.

Pleased with the effect, New York State transportation officials are now warning that traffic delays are going to hit New Jersey-bound vehicles starting in December, as a new phase begins on the construction project that caused all the worry, the rehabilitation of the Alexander Hamilton Bridge.

The span connects Manhattan with the Bronx and is less than a mile from the George Washington Bridge.

At 8 a.m. on a typical weekday, it takes 11 to 13 minutes on average for a vehicle to travel eastbound from the intersection of Routes 80 and 95 in Hackensack to the deck of the George Washington Bridge, according to INRIX. But in the months from the start of the Alexander Hamilton Bridge project until Sandy struck, that drive took an average of between four and six minutes.

Congestion at the bridge, of course, has increased in the weeks since Sandy because commuters had fewer transit options and the Holland Tunnel was out of commission much of the time. But the numbers indicate that motorists avoided the world’s busiest span for a prolonged period.

There were nearly 6,400 fewer daily Manhattan-bound trips on average in the 2-1/2 months after the July 15 start of construction, compared with the period in 2011, according to officials at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the agency that operates the GWB. They also said the warnings appeared to be the cause.

The Lincoln and Holland tunnels, the Port Authority’s other Hudson River crossings, meanwhile, saw no appreciable increase in traffic over that time, said Steve Coleman, a spokesman at agency.

The work on the Alexander Hamilton resulted in a lane closing that engineers projected could create a choke point, backing up traffic on the west side of the George Washington Bridge to Route 80 in Hackensack and into the Meadowlands on the New Jersey Turnpike.

The current phase of the project is expected to end in early December, five weeks earlier than anticipated, officials said.

The predictions from New York State transportation officials this summer prompted calls for street closings and extra police patrols in Bergen County towns bordering Route 95. Transportation agencies in both New York and New Jersey asked eastbound commuters to find other ways across the river. They used Web sites, mobile applications, electronic billboards and statements to the media.

“In terms of getting the word out, that was unprecedented,” said Levine.

It was a toned-down version of what was dubbed Carmaggedon on the West Coast — a road project in Los Angeles that caused the closing of a 10-mi. stretch of a busy Interstate in September and last year. Officials predicted the worst. But motorists ended up staying home or taking other modes of transportation, and the potentially affected roads were relatively empty.

In Phase 5 of the Alexander Hamilton Bridge project, crews will set up a working area in the middle of the westbound side of the bridge, fed by the chronically clogged Cross Bronx Expressway. It will result in the closing of one of the four westbound lanes and is expected to last through April.

“The Cross Bronx Expressway into the George Washington Bridge is always slow,” Levine said. “We do expect it’s going to be a little more arduous.”

This time, he did not provide estimates for how far the backups might extend.

Bak, of INRIX, said motorists often write off a particular route if they hear about the potential for congestion. But with the increasing number of free, real-time traffic applications, both on phones and on the Internet, he said, motorists can make last-minute decisions based on how the traffic patterns are playing out that day.

“It’s that saying, ’Know before you go,’” he said. “That could be five minutes before you walk out the door.”

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