- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 26, 2003

Concerns about traffic gridlock as the Thanksgiving holiday began yesterday fizzled into routine grumblings about slightly longer lines on roads, rails and airlines.

The AAA travel group predicted 36 million people nationwide would travel 50 miles or more from their homes over the holiday weekend, the highest number of travelers in two years.

The warning prompted many travelers to leave early, thereby reducing gridlock that has occurred on other Thanksgiving holidays.

However, AAA warns that relatively smooth traffic yesterday might not last through Sunday, when the 578,000 Washington-area residents traveling a long distance return from their holiday.

“Sunday will be a nightmare,” said Deborah DeYoung, AAA-Mid-Atlantic spokeswoman. “Everyone comes home.”

Aggravating the situation is a 4 p.m. Washington Redskins home football game that will add traffic to the Capital Beltway.

Today, tomorrow and Saturday will be easier travel days, Miss DeYoung said.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) issued warnings that travelers should leave early if they are flying. About 80,000 Washington-area residents are flying during the holiday, AAA estimated.

Airport officials said airline passengers being aware of new security procedures made passing through checkpoints faster than in the previous two years.

“They know to take off their coats and have their bags open,” said Tara Hamilton, spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which manages Washington Dulles International and Ronald Reagan Washington National airports.

The TSA, which has been laying off screeners to meet congressional budget demands, brought in additional screeners yesterday and kept all its security-checkpoint lanes moving.

“A big difference is that people have come early,” Miss Hamilton said. “They’ve had time to check in at ticket counters and get through screening. They planned really well.”

At Baltimore-Washington International Airport yesterday morning, a steady flow of travelers filtered through the security checkpoints.

McLean resident Edwina Rogers, who was traveling with her husband and two young children, said she was amazed by how easily she breezed through check-in to get to the security gate by 11:30 a.m.

“Last year we took a flight in the midafternoon and it was awful, there were long lines and congestion,” said Mrs. Rogers, who is traveling with her family to Nashville, Tenn.

She said the family planned to get to the airport two hours early for their 1 p.m. flight because of reports of expected travel delays.

“It’s nice to be wrong,” she said.

Baltimore resident Jessica Silverman and her family waited about three minutes to get through security lines.

“I can’t believe how easy this is compared to last year when we were in lines for two hours,” Mrs. Silverman said.

But airport workers didn’t expect the lull to continue last night.

“Just wait until people start getting off of work,” said one TSA screener who asked not to be named. “We’re expecting our [baggage] loads to go through the roof by this evening.”

About 13 percent of Thanksgiving travelers are using airlines this year, according to AAA. The bulk of the travelers, or 31.1 million people, are driving.

Nevertheless, any problems on Washington streets or surrounding highways were routine for the day before Thanksgiving.

“Not anything substantial,” said Adrienne Cousler, spokeswoman for the Maryland State Highway Administration. “Basically we’re seeing just the routine kind of rush-hour traffic.”

Any backups resulted from “mostly just fender benders,” Miss Cousler said.

Auto travel was heavier than the past two years because of an improving national economy and flat gasoline prices, AAA said.

Predictions of heavy traffic prompted most travelers to think in advance, thereby avoiding many of the last-minute tie-ups they feared.

Travelers at Reagan Airport and Amtrak passengers at Union Station said they had few complaints.

“Everybody was saying what a zoo it was going to be, but I haven’t seen any problem,” said Terry Williams, a college business professor returning from a conference to his home in Bellingham, Wash.

He was waiting for an Alaska Airlines flight at Dulles Airport with his daughter, Andrea.

“We left a couple of hours early and they’re not even open to check our baggage,” he said.

“I’m actually surprised how not crowded it is,” said Samina Bharmal, a Georgetown University linguistics student traveling to visit her brother in Los Angeles. “The shuttles were empty, practically.”

She arrived at Reagan Airport early with her roommate to find she could sit and wait for her flight rather than standing in a long security line.

At Union Station, Amtrak passenger Craig Metrick, a corporate researcher traveling to Princeton Junction, N.J., said, “I thought the trains might be delayed a little bit but I’m not too worried.”

The national rail service added 40,000 seats, or 70 trains, including 31 Acela Express trains, between Washington, New York and Boston.

Marguerite Higgins contributed to this report.

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