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BWI to debut $105 million concourse connection as Thanksgiving scramble begins

Ed Stylc of the Baltimore Metropolitan Council demonstrates the "RITIS" (Regional Integrated Transportation Information System) program, which provides traffic data including the busiest times to travel for Thanksgiving on the roads in the region. Travelers also explain how they are attempting to avoid these travel issues. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun video)

Interstate 95 and the Baltimore Beltway are expected to be maddening as usual in the days leading up to Thanksgiving, but air travelers may face fewer chokepoints at BWI Marshall Airport with the introduction of a new security checkpoint and terminal connections this week.

The airport is scheduled to cut the ribbon Tuesday on its $105 million concourse connection — linking the D and E concourses to accommodate the airport's sharp increase in international traffic — debuting the new section of the airport just in time for the Thanksgiving rush.

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"It's going to be a real improvement to the airport," Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn said. "People are going to feel less stresses as a result of this. There's nothing that's going to make this not crazy — we're talking Thanksgiving travel. … What we do know is that these sorts of amenities and connections will ease the experience."

Even Baltimore-area residents who are staying home for turkey, football and other festivities this weekend could find themselves caught in the pre-Thanksgiving traffic jams.

The Beltway's outer loop is the area's most congested on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, thanks to the added volume of holiday travelers mixed in with the normal rush-hour mess, according to research by the University of Maryland's Center for Advanced Transportation Technology Lab.

Outer-loop Beltway traffic slowed to 20 mph or less all the way from Interstate 70 to I-95 as of 5 p.m. on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving last year, the lab's models show.

By Wednesday — the biggest travel date of the year — the rush-hour impact on the Beltway ebbs, as many travelers leave work early and crowd onto I-95 to visit out-of-town relatives, the lab found. The biggest chokepoint Wednesday afternoon is generally on I-95 north of the Beltway, the center found.

Drivers looking to skip the worst of the traffic should try to avoid being on the road between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. Tuesday and between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. Wednesday, said Michael Pack, the lab's director.

The lab uses a system based on GPS data to show how fast traffic is moving on a given road in real time, Pack said. The university supplies the data to the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, which uses it to share travel tips and propose traffic congestion fixes throughout the region.

The GPS-based mapping app Waze, which uses crowdsourcing to warn users of — and navigate them around — traffic, accidents and even speed traps, said its users reported one-third more car crashes nationwide on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving last year. Traffic jams were up 240 percent and accidents doubled between 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. on the Sunday after Thanksgiving across the country, Waze said.

The State Highway Administration is dispatching extra patrols to assist drivers with broken-down vehicles, opening all nonemergency lanes and encouraging drivers to move vehicles out of the roadway in the case of minor accidents, spokesman Charlie Gischlar said.

Low gas prices are expected to contribute to the congestion on the highways. A gallon of regular unleaded gasoline is projected to cost an average of $2.11 nationally on Thanksgiving, the third-lowest price in the past decade, according to GasBuddy.

With low gas prices and an improving economy, AAA Mid-Atlantic is projecting a roughly 3 percent increase in the number of Marylanders traveling over Thanksgiving — about 31,000 more than in 2015, spokeswoman Ragina Cooper Averella said. Nearly one of every six state residents will travel more than 50 miles for the holiday, the vast majority of them by car, according to AAA.

The auto club projects 48.7 million Americans will travel at least 50 miles from home between Wednesday and Sunday.

With those figures comes a grim statistic: 400 people die in crashes nationwide over the holiday weekend each year, Averella said.

"We want to encourage motorists to give themselves ample time so they're not rushed and aren't distracted," she said.

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Laura Palmer, 33, of Columbia is staying home and making dinner for her four boys, ages 11, 7, 4 and 2. She normally has family over to her house but doesn't travel for Thanksgiving because of the traffic.

"Hats off to the people who do it every year," she said. "I wouldn't be able to."

Garland Simon, 59, of South Baltimore said he will be driving an hour and a half each way on Thursday to visit his family in New Castle, Del.

Doing all his driving on Thanksgiving Day, he said, he expects to miss most of the gridlock.

Simon is coming back Thursday night because he has to work the next morning at Costco, where he'll handle the first shipment of Christmas trees, due to arrive Friday. "I'm on tree duty," he said.

Other travelers headed to Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport on Monday, hoping to leave for their holiday destinations before the airport becomes snarled in traffic and lines for check-in and security.

Gail Foster, 51, of Jonestown, Pa., said she was taking her two daughters to Dallas for the week to visit her brother. All three were looking forward to temperatures in the 60s and 70s.

"It's 40 degrees and very, very windy back home," she said. "It'll be a nice week away from the cold front."

Matthew and Sharon Baker of Catonsville said they were flying to New England on Monday with their children, Chloe, 8, and Elise, 5, to spend Thanksgiving with family in Vermont and New Hampshire. They booked their trip outside peak travel times, leaving Monday and returning Friday.

"We try to leave a little earlier and come back a little earlier to avoid the holiday rush," Matthew Baker said.

Kristi Spies, 44, of York, Pa., said York Country Day School closed all week before Thanksgiving, allowing her and her husband, Jay, to book their trip to Fort Myers, Fla., a few days early. She is a teacher at the school; her children, Mason, 12, and Harper, 8, are students there.

"We figured we'd get out ahead of the crowd," Spies said.

Michelle Mabry, 49, of Indianhead in Charles County lost her father and grandparents in the past year, so her family decided to cancel this year's family Thanksgiving dinner. They're going to Disney World instead.

"We're trying something different," said Mabry, as her husband, Danny, printed their boarding passes.

Steve and Celeste Yankowsji, of Reading, Pa., were headed to Las Vegas on Monday. It isn't just a getaway; they're going to visit their daughter.

But they'll also visit the city's casinos, too, Celeste Yankowsji said — "perks of having family in Vegas."

Jim Fula, 49, of Alexandria, Va., took extra vacation time from work as general manager at LSR Refinishing to leave Monday for Boston, where he'll spend Thanksgiving visiting family.

Fula said he booked the Monday flight for a more relaxed trip after witnessing the holiday traveling hysteria firsthand in previous years.

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"I don't want to deal with the traffic and airport lines," he said. "The lines are crazy; people are in bad moods."

Fula also hopes to dodge another Thanksgiving pitfall this year, one that looms large for many families: political discussions at the dinner table.

"I don't want to see any gravy bowls flying," he said.

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