- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 17, 2016

More than a million people are expected to flee the D.C.-region for Thanksgiving in other states next week — and most of them will be making that trip in cars, clogging roadways in every direction.

AAA Mid-Atlantic predicts that 1.2 million area residents will travel 50 miles or more for the holiday. That’s a 6 percent increase over the number who left the area last year and the largest amount since 2007.

Of those traveling next week, more than 90 percent will be using cars. A mere 7 percent will ride in planes, and the rest will take trains or other modes of transportation. Travel numbers for all categories rose over last year’s numbers.

Nationally, the numbers correspond with the regional ones: In all, 48.7 million Americans will travel to celebrate Thanksgiving, the most in nearly a decade.

Washington-area residents should expect bumper-to-bumper traffic as early as Sunday, according to AAA. To save travel time, the organization recommends travelers depart before noon.

A 2014 study by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) shows the traffic impacts of Thanksgiving travel start the Sunday before the holiday and continue as late as the Monday after.

The Tuesday before Thanksgiving was rated the worst day to travel by the COG researchers. Between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. Tuesday, the average speed of car travel dropped to its lowest point of the entire week — about 20 mph below the average speed one would expect without any traffic. That’s about twice as bad as normal Tuesday evening rush hour traffic.

The Wednesday before Thanksgiving doesn’t get much better: By 4 p.m., westbound traffic on the 14-mile stretch of Interstate 66 from the Beltway to Centreville slowed to less than 20 mph.

In Maryland, the Capital Beltway between Interstates 270 and 95 “was one of the worst roadways to travel on Wednesday afternoon, with speeds in both directions slowing to less than 20 mph,” the COG report says. Typical Wednesday afternoon speeds on that stretch hover around 40 mph.

John Townsend, AAA’s manager of public and government sffairs, said reasons for the uptick in travelers include a more stable economy, rising wages and increasing consumer confidence.

Consistently low gas prices have played a part. Though gas prices have risen slightly recently, they’re still lower than single-day spikes in 2008, when people paid $4 a gallon and a yearly average in 2012 of around $3.60 a gallon.

Current gas prices are averaging about $2.15 per gallon nationwide for regular, which is less than penny higher than the same period last year. In the District, gas prices have risen to about $2.36, compared to $2.33 last year at this time.

Travel numbers track closely with the economy, especially the amount of expendable income Americans can spend on travel.

“Travel is the function of discretionary spending,” Mr. Townsend said. “We can trace this all back to the Great Recession.”

In 2005, about 58.6 million people traveled nationwide for Thanksgiving — almost 10 million more than expected this year. In 2007 the number dropped to about 50 million travelers — still above this year’s prediction.

“As good as the forecasts are this year, we haven’t gotten back to that yet,” Mr. Townsend said.

That number fell in 2008 during the recession and a housing crisis. Travel for the holiday dropped to 37.8 million people; in 2009, it only rose to 37.9 million.

The D.C. region has seen similar changes over the years, tracking very closely with national trends.

In 2005, about 1.4 million area residents traveled for Thanksgiving. That number took a nose dive in 2008 and 2009 to just over 900,000. Since then, it has hovered around 1 million until this year.

• Ryan M. McDermott can be reached at rmcdermott@washingtontimes.com.

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