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Pandemic puts the brakes on holiday travel

Near record low numbers are expected to be on the highways this Memorial Day holiday weekend as the impact of the coronavirus pandemic lingers.

For the first time in 20 years, AAA has not issued a Memorial Day travel forecast, as the accuracy of the economic data used to create the forecast has been undermined by COVID-19. The annual forecast — which estimates the number of people traveling over the holiday weekend — will return next year.

Anecdotal reports suggest fewer people will hit the road compared to years past for what is considered the unofficial start of the summer travel season.

Memorial Day 2009 currently holds the record for the lowest travel volume at nearly 31 million travelers, according to AAA. That holiday weekend, which came toward the end of the Great Recession, 26.4 million Americans traveled by car, 2.1 million by plane and nearly 2 million by other forms of transportation, such as train, cruise, etc.

AAA expects to make travel projections for the late summer and fall, assuming states ease travel restrictions and businesses reopen. Already, there are indications that Americans’ desire to travel is inspiring them to plan future vacations.

“Coming off the second highest travel volume on record one year ago is a good indicator that travel will rebound eventually,” Bevi Powell, senior vice president, AAA East Central, said in a statement.

Those traveling will enjoy cheaper gasoline as the average price for gasoline in Pennsylvania is $2.265 per gallon.

At the start of the Memorial Day work week, the national gas price average was $1.87.

The last time the national gas price average leading into the holiday was under $2 per gallon was 17 years ago in 2003. That year, motorists paid, on average, $1.50 to fill-up. Gas prices this year won’t be as cheap as 2003, but today’s national average is a dollar cheaper than one year ago.

Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission projects that more than 1.1 million motorists will travel the turnpike over the Memorial Day holiday weekend.

This is fewer than half of last year’s travelers; that tally was more than 2.2 million during the same holiday period.

“While the pandemic has kept many customers off our roadway, there is no safety in lower traffic numbers because many who are driving now are forgetting their safe-driving behaviors,” Mark Compton, CEO of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, said.

“Our patrols have cited a number of motorists who are driving at speeds of 100 mph or greater,” said Lt. David Devitt of the Pennsylvania State Police, Troop T, in Highspire.

The turnpike will have patrols and safety teams throughout the system who are there to make sure travelers get to their destinations safely. That means responding to travelers in need of assistance, as well as taking action against illegal or unsafe behaviors.

As a temporary safety measure during the COVID-19 pandemic, the turnpike is not accepting cash or credit cards on its mainline ticket system.

All tolls are assessed electronically via E-ZPass or the Pa. Turnpike Toll by Plate program as vehicles travel at posted speed limits through tolling points. With the Pa. Turnpike Toll by Plate, high-speed cameras capture license plate images as vehicles pass through. The registered vehicle owner receives an invoice within 30 days for trips made through the tolling point. Invoices can be paid online, by phone or by mail.

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