Good weather, bad traffic forecast for holiday

Memorial Day weekend expected to see more travelers than ever

May 25, 2007|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun reporter

Gasoline prices in the region are at near-record levels. Hotel rates are up 13 percent since last year. The roads, bridges and tunnels are going to be crawling with police. And more Marylanders will be on the road this Memorial Day weekend than ever before.

That's the forecast from AAA Mid-Atlantic and Maryland police agencies as they look forward to a weekend of near-perfect spring weather, lavish consumer spending and clogged transportation corridors.

Mahlon G. "Lon" Anderson, a spokesman for AAA, told a news conference yesterday on Kent Island that the auto club's polling shows it should be a banner weekend for travel to Ocean City and other resorts close to the Baltimore-Washington region.

"The overwhelming message is that Americans are unwilling to give up their summer vacations regardless of the high costs," he said.

Ragina Averella, AAA's Maryland spokeswoman, estimated that about 720,000 Marylanders - about 600,000 by car - will travel 50 miles or more this weekend despite an average gas price of about $3.15 a gallon. Including Washington and Virginia in the mix raises the estimate to more than 2 million.

One catch is that about 350,000 of them are expected to be passing through the region's longest, tightest bottleneck - the five-lane William Preston Lane Jr. Memorial Bridge, also known as the Bay Bridge. That would represent a 3 percent increase in the number crossing the twin spans last Memorial Day weekend, according to the Maryland Transportation Authority.

If the past is a good predictor of the coming weekend, many will try to beat the rush to the Eastern Shore by leaving the Baltimore area about midday.

Bad strategy.

Newly released figures from the Bay Bridge toll plaza show heavy travel on the Friday before Memorial Day last year - with more than 3,500 eastbound vehicles an hour - between 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. The peak, with more than 4,500 cars an hour, came between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. Traffic eased slightly after 6 p.m. but remained at rush hour levels until 10 p.m.

Figures for the westbound trip Monday aren't as precise because tolls are not collected in that direction, but according to the transportation authority, the peak hours then are between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m.

To put it mildly, backups have been known to occur with such traffic volume, even without a catastrophic accident such as the one that killed three motorists on the westbound span May 10 and closed the bridge to traffic from the Eastern Shore for about seven hours.

Cheryl Sparks, a spokeswoman for the authority, said it will likely open three lanes heading eastbound - one on the westbound span - today. The eastbound span has two lanes, the westbound three.

One big factor in bridge congestion is the weather - and it can cut both ways. Rain and high wind can slow traffic conditions on the bridge, while a favorable forecast can motivate more people to visit the beach.

As Anderson noted, weather for this weekend could be "picture perfect." High winds are not in the forecast at the bridge, and the National Weather Service is predicting highs in the 70s throughout the weekend, with a slight chance of thunderstorms tomorrow and Sunday in Ocean City.

That city's mayor, Richard W. Meehan, came to the news conference at Hemingway's bayside restaurant to take credit for his first Memorial Day in that office.

"I'm in charge of the weather. How'm I doing?" Meehan said.

The mayor's message was, in effect, the more, the merrier. He said there are enough hotel rooms to accommodate all visitors. He he amplified his pitch by enticing motorists with the prospect of gasoline prices 20 to 25 cents a gallon cheaper on the Eastern Shore.

Police officials said they will operate increased patrols through the holiday weekend.

Maryland Transportation Authority Police Chief Marcus L. Brown said that while other Marylanders enjoy the holiday, his department will have fewer than usual members on vacation.

"We actually ask more people to work," said Brown, whose department enforces traffic laws on the Bay Bridge and at other toll facilities.

Maryland State Police Superintendent Thomas E. "Tim" Hutchins said troopers will target drunken drivers, high-speed motorists and violators of the state's mandatory seat belt law - the last as part of a statewide "Click It or Ticket" campaign.

Hutchins said the State Police will use its aviation unit as part of its enforcement effort.

The authority said motorists who want information about traffic conditions on the Bay Bridge can call 877-BAYSPAN or sign on to www.baybridge.com. Visitors to the site can view live camera feeds or sign up for traffic alerts.

The transportation authority also predicts heavy weekend traffic on Interstate 95 in downtown Baltimore because of several high-attendance events tomorrow and Sunday, including a college lacrosse championship.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

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