With economy improving, more Mainers hit the road for holidays

Posted Nov. 24, 2010, at 1:37 p.m.
Travelers leave the Bangor International Airport Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2010.  Millions of people throughout the country travel to see family on the day before Thanksgiving, which is said to be one of the year's busiest travel days. (Bangor Daily News/Gabor Degre)
Travelers leave the Bangor International Airport Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2010. Millions of people throughout the country travel to see family on the day before Thanksgiving, which is said to be one of the year's busiest travel days. (Bangor Daily News/Gabor Degre)

More Mainers were expected to hit the roads and skies for the holiday compared with last year, reflecting national trends and a slowly improving economy.

Storms snarl travel National travel picture
Opt-Out Day a bust; weather whacks West.

The AAA travel organization estimated roughly 42.2 million people nationwide would drive more than 50 miles from home for Thanksgiving, an 11.4 percent increase over 2009. Similarly, 1.62 million will fly for the holiday, an increase of 3.5 percent over last year. And roughly 2 percent of holiday travelers will go by other means, including rail, bus and boat, AAA said.

The Maine Turnpike — the central artery into and out of the state — was expecting an overall traffic increase of 4,000 vehicles from Wednesday through Sunday, up about 1.6 percent from last year. That analysis was done by Charles Colgan, an economist at the Maine Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Southern Maine.

According to the analysis, 59,000 vehicles were expected to pass through the York Toll Plaza in both directions on Wednesday, with 32,000 heading north and 27,000 going south. Sunday is expected to be nearly as busy with 55,000 vehicles traveling in and out of Maine, including a 2 percent increase in southbound traffic or about 32,000 vehicles.

“It largely reflects just a general slight upward trend in the economy and in people’s willingness to travel,” Colgan said.

Traffic has been trending slowly upward through the second half of the year, he said, with general year-over-year increases on holiday weekends.

“This is largely a continuation of that slow but steady improvement,” said Colgan.

Despite nationwide grumbling about the Transportation Security Administration’s new body scanners and aggressive body pat-downs, officials at Bangor International Airport and the Portland International Jetport said they expected increased passenger counts and no real issues.

Neither airport has the scanning devices, which have caused passengers to protest due to the revealing nature of the images they create.

Bangor International Airport Director Rebecca Hupp said she’s expecting this week to reflect the small increases in passenger numbers the airport has seen this year.

“In Bangor, we’ve seen increases in passenger travel,” said Hupp. “We’re optimistic that travel this year will be strong [during the holidays].”

BIA passenger traffic was up 19 percent in October year-over-year. The numbers were also up in September. Those percentage jumps likely won’t continue for November, Hupp said. Allegiant added flights last November, so any increases will be smaller.

Gregory Hughes, marketing manager at the Portland Jetport, said travel ahead of the holiday is spread out a bit, even into last week. The challenge will come on the return trips, which tend to stack up, he said.

“The insanity will probably be more here on Sunday afternoon and Monday morning,” said Hughes. “Everybody is trying to get back from where they’ve been.”

The Jetport is seeing numbers roughly even with last year, Hughes said.

Management at the Greyhound station in Bangor has been “very pleased and very busy,” said Arthur Brountas, out of retirement to help out during the holiday rush. From experience, they know to increase staff and add a bus on the line down to Lewiston, said Brountas. He suggested some of the national griping about security measures at airports might help out the bus line.

“This year looks better — maybe some people aren’t taking planes,” said Brountas, laughing. “The airlines seem to be doing OK, but I’m sure we’re getting some people that don’t care to go through the process right now.”

While some nasty weather may be heading this way from the Midwest, the timing may work out for holiday travelers, said Lee Foster, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Caribou. Thanksgiving Day should be dry across the state with some flurries in the mountains. That Midwest system should be in Maine on Friday, dumping rain from Bangor south and snow and sleet in the northern parts of the state. He said 2 to 4 inches of snow may fall in some areas.

Precipitation should end by Friday evening, and the weekend won’t see any big storms, though the weather will be unsettled with a few flurries north, Foster said.

The Maine Department of Transportation, Maine State Police and AAA used the start of the holiday travel season to remind motorists of the challenges of driving in sloppy winter weather. According to an advisory they sent out, while Maine’s snowiest month is January, crash statistics show that there are more winter-weather related crashes in December than any other month as drivers are getting re-accustomed to driving in snow and ice.

One group, Environment Maine, was taking advantage of the expected jump in travel to push the Obama administration to increase fuel efficiency standards for vehicles. The group noted that about 73,000 families will drive to visit friends and family in Maine, spending about $1.63 million on gas for holiday traveling. The average mile per gallon of passenger cars is now at 26.4 mpg, and the group is pushing for 60 mpg standards.

With such standards, Mainers would save roughly $911,000 at the gas pump, or $12 per family, the group suggested.

“At Thanksgiving time, Mainers should be focused on clearing their plates, not clearing out their wallets at the gas pump,” said Nathaniel Meyer of Environment Maine in a press statement.

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