- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 20, 2001

The number of people traveling during the upcoming holidays is expected to drop slightly, but anyone expecting a quick drive up to Pennsylvania for some homemade pumpkin pie can forget it.
AAA yesterday reported that the region's highways are expected to be just as packed as last year, despite worries about the economy that were originally expected to keep many people at home.
About 638,000 people in the region are expected to take trips by car during the Christmas and New Year's holidays, marking just a 1 percent decrease from last year. Nationally, 42.2 million of the 53.7 million expected travelers will get to their destinations on the highway. Non-auto travel including trips by air, rail and bus is expected to drop 20 percent, AAA reported.
Overall, travel in the region is expected to decline 6 percent, compared with last year.
Observers said the projected drop in non-auto travel can be attributed not only to travelers' fear of flying, but a decrease in the number of flights to those smaller, regional airports known to attract holiday travelers. In this region, Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport is operating at about half-capacity, and Baltimore-Washington International Airport is expecting a 12 percent decline in passengers compared with the holiday season last year.
Meanwhile, Greyhound, the nation's largest passenger-bus company, and rail carrier Amtrak said they are both optimistic ridership will be on par with last year's holiday season.
AAA was encouraged by its projection of a 20 percent decrease in non-auto travel, because its Thanksgiving projections indicated a decrease of closer to 30 percent. And the number of people traveling by plane, train or bus for the upcoming holidays is expected to be twice as large as during Thanksgiving. About 174,000 of the region's 812,000 expected holiday travelers are expected to take a plane, train or bus.
"It's encouraging to see that for Christmas to New Year's, when we see a lot of [longer] travel, it's just a 20 percent drop," AAA spokesman Justin McNaull said. "That's a real positive sign for the tourism industry."
Mr. McNaull said ongoing concerns relating to airline travel will likely force many travelers to hop in their cars rather than airplanes, but that gas prices now at a two-year low may also be a factor. The average price for a gallon of unleaded gasoline for the metro area is $1.11, or about 38 cents less than last Christmas.
"Continued low gas prices provide a terrific boost for holiday travelers and the U.S. economy," Mr. McNaull said. "Getting Americans back on the road traveling is vital as the tourism industry recovers from the September 11 terrorist attacks. Our resolve to travel is strong, and inexpensive fuel prices knock down an economic impediment that might otherwise keep people home. They're pretty good for sustaining holiday cheer, too."
One good thing for motorists expecting a crunch of traffic this holiday season: the Christmas holiday usually attracts more travelers than Thanksgiving, but over a longer period of time. Mr. McNaull said holiday traffic will likely be very intense tomorrow, but that many people will hold off until after Christmas, choosing to incorporate New Year's Day into a long weekend. New Year's Day traffic is expected to be heavy, as families travel home to ensure their children are back in school on Jan. 2.
"Thanksgiving is a bit more intense," Mr. McNaull said.

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