After an unusually cold and snowy winter, many Marylanders are expected to take advantage of the sun forecast for this holiday weekend by getting out of town.
More than 754,000 people throughout the state will travel between Friday and Memorial Day, according to AAA Mid-Atlantic, which is scheduled to release its annual summer travel numbers at an event Tuesday.
That's a 1.7 percent increase from last year and the highest number of projected travelers since the pre-recession 2005 estimate of 865,000, the driver advocacy group said.
Gas prices in the state are also slightly lower than they have been in recent weeks and are expected to continue to decline ahead of this weekend, although they are higher than they were this time last year.
After many dreary months of snow, which accumulated in record amounts in many parts of Maryland, early forecasts for this weekend show sunny skies and temperatures in the 70s and 80s.
In part because of the forecast, officials in Ocean City are bracing for a particularly busy start-of-summer weekend, said Jessica Waters, a town spokeswoman.
"We expect it to be a very good summer. We had a really cold and miserable winter, and everyone was really cooped up inside and snowed in," Waters said. "I'm expecting we're going to have really big crowds of people putting away their snow gear and breaking out their swimsuits and coming to the beach."
Marylanders with "cabin-fever" appear "eager to enjoy the anticipated warmer temperatures and sunnier weather with a weekend trip," said Ragina Cooper-Averella, an AAA Mid-Atlantic spokeswoman, in a statement. The "unusually harsh winter and rainy spring may have contributed to the uptick in travel this year," she added.
As in past years, most of Maryland's travelers this weekend will be on the region's roadways, despite higher gas prices, according to AAA. As of Monday, AAA was estimating Maryland motorists will pay an average of $3.62 per gallon this weekend, a dime higher than last Memorial Day but not enough to deter travel.
"With many plans already made and budgets set, it is unlikely that gas prices will have a significant effect on travel plans compared to a year ago," Cooper-Averella said.
Steady declines in gas prices since the beginning of the month aren't hurting, either, she said.
The Maryland Transportation Authority, which operates major pieces of highway infrastructure such as the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, said Monday that it expects 1.7 million motorists this weekend — a 1 percent increase compared with last year.
From Friday to Monday, the MdTA expects more than 333,000 motorists to travel over the Bay Bridge, more than 452,500 to travel along Interstate 95 in the state; and more than 477,000 to drive through the Fort McHenry Tunnel in Baltimore.
Nationally, AAA expects 36.1 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more this weekend, a 1.5 percent increase over last year and the most Memorial Day travelers since 2000.
Of those, some 88 percent will be traveling by car and 2.4 percent by plane, AAA said. Nationally, drivers generally will be paying slightly less on gas than this time last year, though that can't be said in Maryland. Hotels and rental cars will cost slightly more.
Of the 754,000 Marylanders expected to travel, about 89 percent are expected to go by car and 8 percent by plane, Cooper-Averella said, as driving "remains a more affordable option for many travelers, particularly those traveling as a family."
The MdTA encouraged drivers to travel during off-peak periods, especially around the Bay Bridge. Off-peak hours are considered before 10 a.m. and after 10 p.m. on Thursday, Friday, Sunday and Monday, or before 7 a.m. and after 5 p.m. on Saturday.
Transportation and police agencies across the state said they will be matching the travel surge with increased enforcement of traffic laws — including laws against drunken driving.
If the early weather forecasts prove correct, Ocean City's population could easily balloon to nearly 300,000 people this weekend, which is "kind of the official beginning of summer" every year, Waters said.