- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Memorial Day vacationers can expect packed roads this year, officials said Tuesday, thanks to falling gas prices that have encouraged a record number of D.C.-area residents to head out of town for the holiday weekend.

AAA Mid-Atlantic officials project that 875,200 D.C.-area residents will leave home for the holiday, and nearly 90 percent of them will travel by car.

“Expect plenty of company on the highways this weekend,” said John B. Townsend II, a spokesman for the auto club. “Expect traffic jams. There will be a lot of us on the highway.”

The annual forecast was announced at the eastern foot of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, a gateway to Eastern Shore getaway locations.

The nearly 2 percent jump - equating to roughly 17,000 more people than last year - was caused in large part by falling gas prices, AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman Lon Anderson said.

Since Easter weekend, when gas peaked at around $4, prices have dropped each week. According to figures from AAA, self-serve regular gasoline in the D.C. area was $3.67 per gallon, compared with $3.98 per gallon a month ago. This time last year, gas was a nickel short of $4.

Mr. Anderson called the price drop “quite unusual,” noting that gas prices tend to peak between Memorial Day and July 4.

The drop in prices helped boost projections for the number of Mid-Atlantic residents traveling more than 50 miles from home to its highest point in seven years.

Mr. Townsend likened the holiday travel figures to a “canary in the coal mine,” saying they serve as “an early prognosis of how the economy is faring and whether it has turned the corner and is ready to take off.”

Based on what his agency has seen so far, Mr. Townsend said, travelers are still wary of the recovering economy, pointing to the 24 percent of the more than 1,300 households surveyed who said they would “economize” their trips this year by cutting back on entertainment and hotels. The projections for this year suggest a 5 percent drop in people choosing airplanes as their mode of Memorial Day transportation, but a 22 percent gain in bus and train use.

“These are the best numbers we’ve seen since 2006, but it’s not as healthy as it used to be,” Mr. Townsend said.

Nationally, travel patterns mimicked D.C.-area plans, Mr. Anderson said, with more people taking out-of-town trips than last year and close to 90 percent of them traveling by car. One difference is that D.C.-area travelers are expected to spend about $140 more per trip, compared with the $702 the rest of the country plans to spend.

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