Thanksgiving travelers can expect the heaviest traffic in years

November 25, 2019

Traffic leading up to Thanksgiving is expected to be the heaviest in more than a decade and could be made worse by a storm threatening the Northeast.

AAA expects about 2.4 million New Englanders to take to the roads, skies and rails for the five-day holiday period, 3 percent more than last year and the second-highest number of travelers since the organization began tracking data almost 20 years ago. The record number for travelers was set in 2005.

“Strong economic fundamentals are motivating Americans to venture out this holiday in near-record numbers,” Patrick Moody, manager of public affairs for AAA Northern New England, said in a news release. AAA uses the firm IHS Markit to forecast travel volumes by using factors such as employment, output, household net worth, stock indices, interest rates, housing market indicators, and variables related to travel and tourism, including prices of gasoline, airline travel and hotel stays.

“Consumer spending remains strong, thanks to increasing wages, disposable income and household wealth, and travel remains one of their top priorities this season,” he said.

Almost eight out of 10 travelers will be driving, leading to the likelihood of frustrating traffic congestion. Delays more than three times usual may be expected in the Boston metro region between 4:30-6:30 p.m. Wednesday, the transportation analytics firm INRIX said. The company did not respond to a request for traffic projections in Maine.

“With record numbers of travelers and persistent population growth in the country’s major metropolitan areas, drivers must prepare for major delays,” Trevor Reed, an INRIX analyst, said in a statement. “Although travel times will peak on Wednesday afternoon nationally, travelers should expect much heavier than normal congestion throughout the week.”

The Thanksgiving weekend is the eighth busiest period of the year on the Maine Turnpike, with more than a million vehicles on the road between Wednesday and Sunday, Turnpike Authority spokeswoman Erin Courtney said. Officials predict a 2 percent bump in traffic this year, she said.

While there will be many cars on the road, traffic should not be as bad as on hectic weekends in August or on summer holidays such as Labor Day and Memorial Day.

“Of the five days, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving is the busiest, but it is not our busiest day of the year,” Courtney said.

All six lanes of traffic through two major construction projects on Interstate 95 will be kept open from Wednesday to Sunday. All lanes through a new turnpike tollbooth in York will stay open starting Wednesday, Courtney said. She cautioned drivers to use caution around construction zones in the Portland area, where the turnpike is replacing bridges and off-ramps.

“People should pay attention and drive slowly through those construction zones, the speed limit is the same even when people aren’t working,” Courtney said.

To keep holiday traffic flowing, the Maine Department of Transportation will reopen lanes closed as part of a $52.6 million renovation of the Piscataqua River Bridge between Maine and New Hampshire. All six lanes will be open from 3 p.m. Tuesday to early Monday morning, department spokesman Paul Merrill said.

“We are committing to be sure that all six lanes will be open during peak travel times,” he said. “We know it is a big travel weekend.”

Resurfacing the Piscataqua River Bridge, the state’s busiest, cost 50 percent more than expected partially because of expensive measures to keep traffic moving through construction.

“We haven’t had any major safety issues down there, by and large people understand they are doing a big job and there is going to be some traffic impact,” Merrill said.

Wednesday is expected to be the busiest travel day at the Portland International Jetport over the Thanksgiving holiday. Although travelers are advised to be at the airport 90 minutes prior to departure times, jetport crowds pale by comparison with a typical day in July or August, the height of Maine’s tourism season. (Photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer)

Although most holiday travelers will be driving, Maine’s biggest airport is preparing for a busy weekend, too. New England air travel over the holiday is expected to go up 5 percent to about 285,000 passengers, AAA said. Airlines for America, an industry trade group, predicts air travel over the Thanksgiving weekend will be up almost 4 percent nationwide, with about 31.6 million passengers taking to the skies.

The busiest days at the Portland International Jetport will be Wednesday, with about 3,700 available seats, and Sunday with almost 3,500 available seats, Assistant Airport Director Zachary Sundquist said. The airport recommends travelers arrive at least 90 minutes ahead of their scheduled departure.

Flights are likely to be entirely full and the total number of passengers higher than an average day in November, but far less than the 4,500 daily seats typically available in July, Sundquist said.

Concord Coach Lines, which carried more than 640,000 passengers on its buses last year, said it pays close attention to holiday travel demand to accommodate its passengers. The company advertises extra trips between Maine and New York City.

“We put a tremendous amount of time and effort into planning when and where the busiest trips will be, and making sure that we have enough resources in place to handle those – some trips will need three or four extra buses on days like Tuesday, Wednesday, or Sunday to give our customers the flexibility they’re accustomed to,” said Benjamin Blunt, Concord’s vice president.

Messy weather looming in the forecast could make a tough trip even worse for some drivers. Most of coastal Maine is due to get some rain Wednesday afternoon into Thursday, according to the National Weather Service. But in the mountains and farther north, the rain will mix with snow or ice, or come down just as snow, the service predicts.

Even in a worst-case scenario, the Maine Department of Transportation will be out to make sure the roads are plowed and treated, said Merrill, the department spokesman.

“The Thanksgiving holiday is no different,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what the clocks say or what the calendar says, our folks are going to be out there making sure everyone is safe.”