Expect crowded highways this weekend as Marylanders take advantage of a five-year low in gasoline prices and hit the road in numbers not seen in a decade.
An estimated 801,200 state residents are expected to travel more than 50 miles between Thursday and Monday, the most for a Memorial Day weekend since the pre-recession summer of 2005, according to AAA Mid-Atlantic.
About 90 percent of them, or nearly 720,000, are expected to go by car, a 5 percent increase over last year spurred in part by low gas prices, the driver advocacy organization said. The average price of regular unleaded in Maryland was $2.67 per gallon Tuesday, nearly $1 lower than last year even though prices have been rising from earlier lows.
"Lower gas prices and overall economic stability are fueling consumer optimism so Marylanders are hitting the roads and taking to the skies," said AAA spokeswoman Ragina Cooper-Averella.
Among them will be Earl Legendre, 51, of Mount Vernon, who plans to drive Thursday night with friends for their twice-a-year camping trip. The group has spent Memorial Day weekend in Odessa, Del., for nearly as long as Legendre can remember.
"A buddy of mine, he started it," he said. "And it's gotten bigger and bigger."
Memorial Day air travel among Marylanders is expected to increase for the sixth year in a row — and by 2.1 percent over last year — to about 58,500 fliers, AAA said.
The expected increases in Maryland mirror a national trend, in which the number of Americans traveling for the holiday is expected to hit a 10-year high. Nationwide, AAA expects 37.2 million people to travel — a 4.7 percent increase over last year.
More than 88 percent nationwide will go by car, AAA says, an increase of 5.3 percent over last year's holiday weekend. The national numbers are the highest for any holiday since July Fourth 2012.
The number of Marylanders using other modes of travel, including trains and buses, is expected to decline by nearly 4 percent from last year, to about 24,000, AAA said. The decline is in contrast to years of increases in alternative means of travel.
"Travel by other modes had been on a slow but steady rise since volume fell sharply in 2009 and 2010. This year will see a halt to that climb," Cooper-Averella said. "With gas prices at their lowest level in five years, it seems Marylanders are favoring the convenience and low cost of auto travel or the short travel times offered by air travel."
Akiesha Gray, 34, of Patterson Park will make the 45-minute drive home to Landover, in the Washington suburbs.
Gray's mother owns a catering business called Simply Divine and hosts a huge neighborhood cookout for Memorial Day, grilling hamburgers and hot dogs and making meatballs and chicken skewers, Gray said. A deejay, a moon bounce and snowball stand make the party a hit with kids, she said.
"It's the whole community," she said. "It varies, but she'll have a couple hundred come through."
Memorial Day traditionally launches Maryland's summer beach season.
The Maryland Transportation Authority, which operates the state's toll facilities, expects more than 360,500 vehicles to cross the Bay Bridge between Friday and Monday. Overall it expects a 4 percent increase in traffic through the state's toll booths over the Memorial Day weekend last year. That includes more than 466,000 traveling along Interstate 95 north of Baltimore and more than 479,500 through the Fort McHenry Tunnel.
Another 572,000 vehicles are expected at the MdTA's other facilities, including the Key Bridge, the Harbor Tunnel, and the Hatem and Nice bridges.
The agency urged travelers to travel at off-peak hours to avoid the worst of expected congestion, saying the best times to travel across the Bay Bridge, a perennial choke point, will be on Thursday, Friday, Sunday and Monday before 10 a.m. or after 10 p.m.; and on Saturday before 7 a.m. and after 5 p.m.
Brenda Hardy, 60, will be among the many who spend the weekend working. But few share her profession.
Hardy said she turned her hobby of balloon art into a full-time job when she was let go from the National Institutes of Health four years ago. She works in restaurants during the week, and this weekend will have her driving to Cheverly for a pool party and to Frederick for a picnic.
"The holidays tend to get busy," she said. "I'm not going to the beach, but I'll be on the road."