Thanksgiving travel: Tuesday is the new Wednesday

As more people try to get an early jump on the holiday, Tuesday before Thanksgiving is becoming the new Wednesday before Thanksgiving.

Tuesday isn't expected to be quite as busy as the nation's biggest travel day of the year, but if recent trends continue, it won't be far behind. At Maryland toll plazas, it's already soared past the Sunday after the holiday as the year's second busiest day.

At airports, train stations and toll facilities, officials are expecting a surge in the number of travelers as Thanksgiving continues its inexorable transition from a holiday to a holi-week.

At the same time the highways are becoming busier, downtown and other centers of office work show a distinct slowdown. The normal traffic jams on roads leading downtown decongest. Parking spaces become easier to find.

Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership, becomes part of the trend each November when he heads up Interstate 95 to visit family.

"There is no way I'll drive on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving," he said. "Most recently we've been going up Tuesday afternoon getting a jump on things."

The Maryland Transportation Authority, which keeps meticulous statistics of the number of drivers passing through its toll plazas, reports that Tuesday departures are becoming increasingly popular along the Eastern Seaboard.

The numbers suggest that traffic on Monday will show a barely perceptible uptick from the typical November weekday. At three of the four toll facilities closest to Baltimore — the Bay Bridge, the Harbor Tunnel and the John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway — 500 to 1,000 more vehicles passed through the plazas on that day last year than on a typical November Monday.

It's Tuesday when the real surge begins.

Last year, 148,475 vehicles passed through Maryland's busiest toll facility, the Fort McHenry Tunnel, on Thanksgiving Tuesday. That's roughly 21,000 more than on the average November Tuesday and only 9,000 behind Thanksgiving Wednesday. The authority's other facilities show similar patters.

A spokeswoman for the authority, said shifting travel to Tuesday seems to be a trend.

At the seven toll facilities that were open last year, spokeswoman Teri Moss said, Wednesday led with about 426,000 travelers, while Tuesday was only slightly less busy at 383,000. Sunday came in a distant third at 325,0000.

Travel patterns are difficult to compare from year to year because of such variables as weather, economic conditions and even terrorist incidents. But a comparison of the figures from 2001 and 2010 show changes over the decade.

At the McHenry Tunnel, for example, Wednesday travel slipped from 160,672 in 2001 to 157,910 in 2010. But on Tuesday, tunnel travel grew from 140,666 to 148,475. The JFK Highway — I-95 northeast of Baltimore — showed a similar decline on Wednesday and growth on Tuesday.

At the Bay Bridge and Harbor Tunnel, both days showed increases, but the bump on Tuesday was greater.

Fowler said the trend is not just a Baltimore phenomenon.

"If you're traveling anywhere between D.C. and Boston, you need to get a jump on it," he said.

The toll authority official who oversees the JFK Highway said Thanksgiving Tuesday used to be just another day. But in the last few years, deputy administrator Sheila Williams said, the agency has beefed up staffing at its cash tollbooths to handle the increasing volume.

"It won't start before 11 in the morning," she said. "Eleven or 12 o'clock is when we first see it."

Vernon Bingham, manager of the Maryland House travel plaza on the JFK Highway for the past 19 years, has noticed the early surge.

"Tuesday night is when it actually starts, the business," he said. He suggested that's a sign that many people are leaving work at midday to get a head start.

He's also noticed that a lot of the Thanksgiving Tuesday travelers are elderly people who presumably have no trouble with work conflicts.

Bingham said food vendors at the plaza will be stocking up far more than they would for the typical Tuesday.

"Starbucks will order a lot more coffee. Roy Rogers will order a lot more chicken," he said.

BWI Marshall Airport spokesman Jonathan Dean expects a busy travel day Tuesday, but not as many passengers as on Wednesday.

J. Kawika Riley, a spokesman for the Transportation Security Administration, said the agency began increasing staff at the airport on Friday and will continue to ratchet up the number of workers in the days leading up to the holiday.

Scott Hartford, general manager of Aero Service Group, said the four restaurants his company operates at BWI already were seeing a pickup in business late last week. He said that when the economy was deep in recession, people tended to leave right before the holiday and come home soon afterward. Now, he said, they're spending more time at their destinations.

"It's definitely more spread out than it has been in the last two years," said Hartford, whose company operates DuClaw Brewing Co. and other restaurants at the airport. He said he expects a slight lull Monday after a busy Sunday, and then to see business come roaring back Tuesday and Wednesday.

For Amtrak, Wednesday continues to be the busiest day of the busiest travel season of the year. But the passenger railroad is also seeing more early travelers, spokeswoman Donnell Hunter said.

But there are indications that shifting to Tuesday might be a strategy with diminishing returns.

Peter Walden of Timonium, who works for an insurance company in Hunt Valley, is planning to depart for Long Island this year at about 6 a.m. Wednesday. He said he originally planned to leave Tuesday, but didn't feel too put out when his wife had a scheduling conflict.

It seems the last time he left on that Tuesday, it took him longer than he expected because of heavy traffic.

"It wasn't as much savings as I thought it would be," he said. "More people are getting on to it."

Nor is there as much advantage as there used to be in starting the return journey on Saturday, he said.

"That is not as easy as it used to be either," he said.

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