The debate has raged ever since the Atlantic City Expressway was built a half-century ago: What's the fastest way to get to the Shore? It's caused more than a few heated arguments between those who swear by their "secret" back-roads routes and those who stick to the highways. For our series "Get out of Town," WHYY's Tom MacDonald has the results of a decidedly unscientific survey and road test to determine who is right.
Call us shoobies, tourists, second-home owners, weekenders or worse … but if you ask any two people how they head to the Jersey Shore resorts, you might trigger a fight — or at least good discussion.
Calling in the experts
Take, for example, two of the veteran traffic reporters in Philadelphia.
John Butterworth, who does the morning reports on WHYY, has been alerting drivers to trouble spots for more than 35 years.
"It would depend on which Shore you are going to," Butterworth said. "If you are going to the Wildwoods, go down 55, take the Delsea Drive. If you're heading to Ocean City, I'd stick with the Atlantic City Expressway and the Parkway.
"Even though you are going to be stuck in traffic, you will probably make better time than going through the back roads. That being said, if you are looking for the scenic route, you can take the Black Horse Pike or the White Horse Pike."
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But you might take his advice with some saltwater taffy, because Butterworth spends his weekends in the Poconos.
WHYY's afternoon traffic reporter Randy Chepigan is a Shore guy. His advice: Unless you are looking for a scenic tour, stay on the highway.
"The White Horse Pike and Black Horse Pike aren't usually better than the Atlantic City Expressway — it usually adds a little bit of time," Chepigan said. "There are a million ways to get everywhere if you look at a map. As far as speed is concerned, the Atlantic City Expressway — barring the huge delays we get on holiday weekends — and Garden State Parkway are the best routes, just because the speeds are so much higher."
Rooting for different routes
They're the experts, but what about the rest of us? SEPTA assistant general manager Fran Kelly says he's a back-roads guy, and it's always worked great getting to North Wildwood.
"We take Route 42 to 557, which turns into 555, which turns into Route 50," Kelly said. "On a Friday night, we stop at Mama Mia's right off of Route 9 and then head the last couple miles into North Wildwood to enjoy the weekend."
One of Kelly's co-workers, SEPTA Police Chief Thomas Nestel, swears by the big roads.
"No deviation. Take the expressway route, that's the best route for me," Nestel said. "Fastest, safest, best route for service in case I break down. That's the way I go."
And from just one posting on Facebook and Twitter, listeners have weighed in with suggestions, including how to find a back road onto Long Beach Island and Loveladies, which I can't even begin to discuss here.
One of the most important influences on my drive to the Shore is my significant other, Beth McFeeley. We have this fight — I mean, discussion — every time we head down to Ocean City.
She says ever since her first trip to the Shore, days after being born at Cooper Hospital, it's been nothing but back roads.
"I go the way my mother always went," Beth said. "She divided the ride into three parts to make it easier for me to understand the progression of the trip as a child. Part one ended somewhere around Voorhees; part two ended somewhere around Hammonton; part three ended in Ocean City."
Beth, like many people, wants to keep her back-roads route a secret, afraid that someone will find it and it will become a parking lot on a Friday or Sunday night.
The Ocean City acid test
To test out the theories, we split up and each took our own route home, even though Beth thought the test wasn't fair.
"Who's going to get home first? You." she said. "Because you drive faster."
We don't have children asking "Are we there yet?" but we do have Stormy Jane McFeeley, Beth's Scottish Fold cat, who hates gridlock. She demonstrates that aversion by pounding on her crate door as I drive.
As we headed home, Shadow Traffic's R.J. McKay had bad news for me.
"Making your way back from the Jersey Shore you have AC Expressway traffic westbound between Exit 12 and Exit 38. You've got pockets of heavy traffic in that area especially around the tolls ..."
The back roads fans looked like sure winners, but I only lost about 15 minutes getting through the tolls. Still, I was running behind, until Beth hit a string of red lights on her route.
At the finish line in Cherry Hill, I arrived a minute and a half ahead of Beth. Of course, I was reminded that accomplishment is "because you drive faster."
Not that this settles anything — but it does show you can avoid some arguments by taking either route to keep peace in the family.