The state has opened a half-mile access lane for eastbound E-ZPass toll customers in time to ease the seasonal tangle expected at the Bay Bridge, which is expected to carry more travelers this holiday weekend than it did a year ago in spite of sharply higher gasoline prices.
In Maryland, about 650,000 people are expected to travel 50 miles or more this Memorial Day weekend. Nearly half of them are expected to cross the Bay Bridge, officials said during a news conference yesterday at the Eastern Shore side of the bridge.
The dedicated lane for drivers who subscribe to the E-ZPass program to pay the $2.50 toll should help because more than a third of motorists crossing the bridge use the prepaid pass, officials said. The additional lane, which was carved out of the median, runs along the left side of the east-bound highway to the bank of 11 tollbooths.
"The good news is that everyone wants to go to Ocean City," state Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan said yesterday. "The bad news is that everyone wants to go at the same time."
Yesterday's event was organized by the auto club AAA Mid-Atlantic to hand out projected travel statistics for the holiday and promote the new access lane. It was also attended by state and local officials, the Maryland Motor Truck Association and state police, who promised strict enforcement of speed and seat-belt laws during the holiday weekend.
AAA estimates that 36.9 million people will travel more than 50 miles nationwide, 3.6 percent more than did so last year. Almost 31 million of them will be traveling by car.
"We're still driving despite the gas prices," said John White, a AAA spokesman.
White estimated that the driver of a minivan making an 800-mile trip would pay about $20 more for gasoline than he would have last year.
AAA surveys found that this week that a gallon of gasoline nationally and in Maryland costs an average of $2.03, up from $1.49 a year ago. Washington gasoline prices were a bit higher at $2.08 a gallon, up from $1.65 a year ago, and Virginia's were lower at $1.96 a gallon, up from $1.40 a year ago.
AAA said the prices are not expected to stop people from heading to Ocean City, the state's most popular summer destination.
A van carrying Ocean City Mayor James N. Mathias Jr., dubbed "king of summer" at the event, and Maryland Transportation Authority Secretary Thomas L. Osborne was escorted by police along the new dedicated E-ZPass lane and across the Bay Bridge.
The van was equipped with an E-ZPass transponder that automatically debits the owner's account.
Mathias declared it "the easiest $2.50 I ever paid."
The Baltimore native said he has crossed the bridge many times and seen many backups. He praised the new access lane, the state's longest dedicated E-ZPass lane, and encouraged travelers to drive during off-peak hours and ride Ocean City buses once they arrive at the beach resort.
Osborne said the state is studying other ways to improve traffic flow, such as extending the dedicated E-ZPass lanes, adding more dedicated tollbooths and encouraging the use of the pass.
About 45 percent of those passing through tollbooths in the state use E-ZPass, he said.
A dedicated booth can collect tolls from about 1,100 drivers an hour, vs. 300 for a booth that takes the pass or cash. About 10 million drivers use the pass in the Northeast.
By the numbers
36.9 million: Number of people who will travel 50 miles or more nationwide over Memorial Day weekend.
650,000: Number of Marylanders will travel 50 miles or more over Memorial Day weekend.
297,696: Number of vehicles expected to cross the William Preston Lane Jr. Memorial Bridge to the Eastern Shore this weekend.
92,000: Number that cross the Chesapeake Bay span each Saturday and Sunday from June through August.
37 percent: Share of Bay Bridge motorists who use E-ZPass transponders to pay the $2.50 toll.
Sources: AAA Mid-Atlantic, Maryland Transportation Authority and the State Highway Administration