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More Marylanders expected to travel for July Fourth, despite high gas prices

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The days surrounding the Fourth of July holiday are perennially among the busiest of the summer when it comes to travel on Maryland roadways and across its skies — and this year will be no exception.

About 858,400 Marylanders are expected to travel between Wednesday and Sunday next week, a 1.6 percent increase over last year and more than any other Independence Day travel period in the past five years, according to estimates to be released today by driver advocacy group AAA Mid-Atlantic.

That the holiday falls on a Friday certainly helps, officials at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport said.

The highest gas prices for this time of year since 2008 — due in part to conflict in oil-rich Iraq — don't seem to deter the desire to drive somewhere, with the bulk of the state's travelers expected to travel by automobile, AAA said.

"Steady improvement in the economy has spurred increased consumer confidence and spending," said Christine Delise, a AAA spokeswoman, in a statement. "Optimistic Americans are more willing to take on debt this year, dusting off their credit cards to pay for a much-needed Independence Day getaway."

About 718,000 of the expected Maryland travelers, or about 87 percent, are expected to travel by automobile, AAA said. Another 7 percent, or about 61,900 travelers, are expected to fly, and BWI expects large volumes of passengers on July 3 and 4, said Jonathan Dean, an airport spokesman.

Other travelers — about 48,500, or 6 percent — will be heading out of town by train or bus, AAA said.

Alexander Boykin, 20, of Silver Spring said he'll be taking a train early on the morning of July 4 to visit friends in Long Island.

"I would never take the bus. It's too many people, it's too crowded for me," he said. He also said there "wouldn't be a point in driving" because his friends can pick him up at the train station.

Catherine Villnave, 28, of Baltimore said she'll be driving to Washington with her partner for a friend's barbecue. Nicollette Ruiz, 19, a Loyola University Maryland student from New York City, will be taking a BoltBus home to celebrate her brother's birthday, she said. Dorah Pierre, 31, of Baltimore, said she hasn't decided on the car or the train yet, or whether she'll head to Washington or New York — but she'll be going somewhere on July 3.

Yuki Kong, 22, a student at the Johns Hopkins University from China, said she will be going to New York City on July 4 to watch the fireworks with her boyfriend. They're going by Amtrak, she said, because she doesn't have a car and thinks "there would be too much traffic with the bus."

The slight increase in travel in Maryland and the heavy reliance on automobiles will be mirrored at the national level, AAA said.

About 41 million Americans will travel — most by car — for the Fourth of July holiday this year, a 1.9 percent increase over last year.

As in Maryland, the total number accounts for those going more than 50 miles from home between July 2 and July 6. It also represents about 5 million more travelers than made trips for Memorial Day.

Among those heading out, more than 80 percent — or about 34.8 million — will be going by car, a 2.2 percent increase over last year, AAA said.

National air travel is expected to increase by 1 percent over last year, to 3.1 million travelers, as airfares are expected to be about 6 percent lower than a year ago, AAA said. The average airfare for a round-trip, discounted fare on the 40 most popular U.S. routes is expected to be about $215, down from $228 last year.

The group estimates national hotel rates to be about 9 percent higher for AAA Three Diamond hotels, averaging about $178 per night compared to $164 last year, and daily car rental costs to remain about flat, at $58.

While travel is expected to remain largely unaffected by the high gas prices nationwide, AAA said travelers might cut back on other holiday expenses — such as eating at restaurants and shopping.

Travelers in the Baltimore region also might feel the pinch of traffic congestion.

As one of summer's busiest weeks for holiday travel and Inner Harbor revelry approaches, officials in Baltimore are scrambling to determine how best to move an influx of visitors and commuters through multiple construction zones causing major congestion on area thoroughfares.

Lane closures are currently in place on southbound Interstate 395 and on Russell Street just before Route 295 — two of the city's main southbound routes — as well as on U.S. 40 heading west out of the city. They have caused major delays during recent evening commutes and Orioles games, affecting not only southbound traffic but also east-west traffic as drivers block intersections and get stuck in unmoving turn lanes.

Cheryl Sparks, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Transportation Authority, which is overseeing the major construction project on I-95 south of the city that has shifted lanes there and required the I-395 lane closure, said her agency will be lifting the I-395 lane closure for the holiday weekend, but some congestion still could occur on I-95 because of the pattern changes.

Officals at the Baltimore transportation department said they are working out their plans for the holiday weekend.

"We're still working out the logistics," said Adrienne Barnes, a department spokeswoman. "We have to look at our plan and tweak it a little based on the closures we already have."

Frank Murphy, a senior adviser to the department, said officials were determining how best to dispatch traffic control officers throughout the city, and were planning to ramp up enforcement of laws that penalize drivers who block intersections.

"People get frustrated and they block the intersections, and that makes things worse," he said. "They're stuck in the intersection and the side street can't go."

Murphy said drivers will have to be patient, especially for the Fourth of July celebrations in the Inner Harbor.

"That's a large enough crowd that people are kind of used to expecting congestion, but at least won't be competing with peak-hour folks," he said.

Delise, the AAA spokeswoman, advised drivers who will be traveling through Baltimore during the holiday travel period to carefully plan their trips ahead of time.

"Before heading downtown or even getting on the road for any of your road trips, do your research and check traffic reports ahead of time so you can perhaps rely on alternate routes," she said. "Don't rely just on GPS. Sometimes they really give you convoluted routes."

Some in Baltimore said they'll be avoiding travel altogether — at least on July 4.

Tynesha Edwards, 25, of East Baltimore sat waiting for a flight to Miami out of BWI on Thursday. She'll be back in Baltimore on Sunday, and will stay home on July 4, she said — maybe enjoying a backyard barbecue with family, maybe eating some crabs.

"This year, I just want to spend time with my family," she said. "Seems like the perfect time."

krector@baltsun.com

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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