More than 927,000 Marylanders expected to travel for Fourth of July weekend

Sean Evans isn't making the typical Maryland Fourth of July weekend drive to Ocean City.

Instead, the 29-year-old Forest Hill resident is road-tripping with his girlfriend and friends to see the Dead & Company, a group of remaining members of the Grateful Dead, Wednesday night at Blossom Music Center in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio — and possibly again over the weekend in Chicago.

But Evans' reasons for hitting the road, a four-day holiday weekend and inexpensive gas prices, are the same as the historic number of Marylanders — more than one in seven — expected to travel for Independence Day, according to AAA Mid-Atlantic.

"If [gas] wasn't as low as what it was, I wouldn't be going to Ohio to see them," said Evans, who sported a "Weir Not Worthy" T-shirt in honor of the band's frontman, Bob Weir, as he filled up his gas tank this week at the Maryland House rest stop on Interstate 95 in Harford County.

The 927,400 Marylanders projected to travel between Friday and Tuesday represent a nearly 3 percent increase from the Fourth of July weekend last year, AAA Mid-Atlantic reported. In addition to being a sign of unusually low gas prices, the number is also an indicator of economic growth and rising employment, the auto club said.

"The holiday falling on a Tuesday for the first time in 11 years could be a contributing factor to this year's record growth as well," said Ragina Cooper Averella, a spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic.

Most vacationers — roughly 87 percent or 808,600 people — are expected to drive to their destinations, a 3 percent increase and the first year that the projection has surpassed 800,000, Averella said.

The average price at the pump in Maryland, $2.22 per gallon of regular, unleaded gas, as of Tuesday, is 7 cents less than at the same time last year, AAA said. That price also reflects a more recent drop of 4 cents in less than a week and 17 cents from last month, the auto club said.

And gas can be found even cheaper, as low as $2.03 on Tuesday at the BJ's Wholesale Club in Canton and a Crown station at Park Heights Avenue and Northern Parkway, according to GasBuddy, a smartphone app that shows drivers the best nearby gas prices and closest gas stations.

Drivers can thank domestic oil production for the low prices at the pump. Crude oil prices have plummeted recently due to the highest level of U.S. oil production in two years, according to Patrick DeHaan, senior petroleum analyst for GasBuddy.

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, which coordinates oil prices among 14 member countries, cut production in November 2016 because prices had become too low, causing oil to rebound to $53 a barrel as recently as spring, he said.

A bounty of U.S.-produced oil has since offset those cuts, DeHaan said.

"July Fourth is going to be cheaper than New Year's Day," he said of gas prices. "That's kind of completely backwards. ... It's the first time since at least 2000 that that's happened."

About 67,400 Marylanders — about 7 percent of those traveling — are expected to fly to their Fourth of July getaways, AAA said, a nearly 4 percent increase from 2016. That reflects confident consumers with rising incomes, given that air travel is generally more expensive than driving, Averella said.

But it could also reflect cheaper airfare. The top 40 domestic flights are expected to be about 10 percent less expensive than for the last Fourth of July, AAA said. An average round-trip ticket to those locations costs $186, the club said.

Another 51,400 Marylanders are expected to take other modes of transportation, such as trains or cruises, for their Fourth of July vacations.

Joella Maloney is among those flying. She takes off for Florida on Friday and will spend the weekend visiting her parents before returning home to Alexandria, Va., on the Fourth, she said.

"It's a nice opportunity to get away," said Maloney, 42.

Krissta King, 71, and her sister Julie Forbus, 61, of Fort Pierce, Fla., stopped to get gas at the Maryland House on their long drive up I-95 to Cape Cod, Mass., for the weekend.

As Forbus leafed through a map in the passenger seat, King fueled up the car and noted that she'd seen gas prices in Maryland that were comparable to some she'd seen in South Carolina, which she said was unheard-of.

"I thought it'd be more," King said.

Jim Doran, 74, of Randolph, N.J., was headed through Maryland in the other direction, to visit his daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren in Vienna, Va.

The 245-mile trip usually takes Doran about four hours and 15 minutes, he said. He's staying through July 10, since he doesn't have to rush back for work.

"I'm retired, so it doesn't matter," he said.

Paul Ashner, 35, of Bethlehem, Pa., is an account manager for the Milwaukee Tool Corp. and drives all over the Mid-Atlantic region for work.

The cheapest gas he's seen: $1.98 per gallon, in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

"What is it here, $2.19? That's not terrible," he said. "It could be worse."

Ashner, who has been on the road since June 19, expects to forgo a trip over the long weekend in favor of cutting the lawn and spending time home with his family.

"I might just be sitting on my recliner," he said.

Adam McCord and his wife have developed a travel strategy for their weekend trips to Ocean City. The couple waits to leave until about 9 p.m. on Saturday. That way, they avoid the traffic — and their kids sleep through most of the ride.

"We put them to bed in their car seats," said McCord, 32, of Towson. "Then the kids wake up at midnight when you get down there and they're up till 2 in the morning."

Jeff Reminga started his family's holiday weekend early with a plan to a sea of brake lights on the New Jersey Turnpike. He was driving north this week to Lavallette, N.J., to visit his aunt.

Reminga, 44, and his family plan to return home to Washington on Saturday to beat the rush. Depending on the traffic conditions, he said, he might drive back along the Jersey Shore, then take the Cape May-Lewes Ferry 17 miles across the Delaware Bay.

"Maybe I'll do that to avoid traffic," he said.

cmcampbell@baltsun.com

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