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August 22. 2013 11:24PM

Labor Day travel likely to be heaviest in five years


Traffic flows through the high speed toll lanes just north of the Hampton tolls on Tuesday. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)


Elizabeth, Julia and Sean Laframboise of Riverside, R.I., peruse brochures at the New Hampshire Visitors’ Center on I-95 in Seabrook on Thursday on their way to Conway for a four-day vacation. They plan to return to the state for the fall foliage season. (GRETYL MACALASTER/Union Leader Correspondent)

HAMPTON — More people are expected to travel in the United States this Labor Day weekend than have since the 2008 financial meltddown, according to AAA.

That may be true if last weekend in New Hampshire was any indicator. That's when record-breaking traffic descended on the Hampton Toll Plaza on Interstate 95.

More than 326,558 vehicles went through the tolls on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the highest volume of traffic recorded since the first weekend in August 2007, which saw 325,558 vehicles pass through.

Labor Day could quickly take that record down.

Pat Moody, manager of public affairs for AAA-Northern New England, said they are anticipating automobile travel over Labor Day weekend to grow in New England by about 4.5 percent compared to the same weekend last year. That is slightly higher than the national average of 4.2 percent.

"This is the high water mark for post-recession so it is definitely positive news that people are getting out there and traveling and trying to get out," Moody said. "It looks like Monday, September 2, is the most popular day to return for a holiday trip so people are trying to get out even with a lot of the schools starting up before the holiday."

Despite the projections, some travelers passing through the rest areas on I-95 in Hampton and Seabrook on Thursday said they would be avoiding travel Labor Day weekend because of the anticipated traffic.

Carol Fawell of Coventry, Conn. owns a summer place in Old Orchard Beach, Maine, and always makes sure to travel mid-week. She said she will be staying home Labor Day weekend to enjoy a family picnic.

Dot Tingley of Taunton, Mass., stopped to have lunch at the rest area with her sister and two grandchildren. They planned to stay in Portsmouth for the night before continuing to Prospect, Maine, on Friday.

Tingley said she planned to stay home Labor Day weekend because of the "overload" of traffic.

The Laframboise family of Riverside, R.I. also made a stop in Seabrook on their way to Conway for a four-day vacation before a planned stay-cation Labor Day weekend.

They try to visit the state one to three times each summer, and expect to be back in October and November as well. Nine-year-old Julia Laframboise said she was most looking forward to canoeing during her last vacation before school starts.

Monica Lynch of Northhampton, Mass., her husband and granddaughter stopped at the rest area southbound on their way home from Wells, Maine. She said she probably will not travel Labor Day weekend.

"It is too busy on the roads," she said.

Although many mid-week travelers said they would stay home, the occupancy rate at Portsmouth's hotels and the expectations from the local Chamber of Commerce is that plenty of people will be coming into the area over the holiday weekend.

"Our hotels have been 100 percent booked and I expect that to continue through Labor Day," said Valerie Rochon, tourism manager for the Portsmouth Area Chamber of Commerce. "I expect that to continue through October, quite frankly."

Retailers also know it is a big weekend, and this year in downtown Portsmouth will offer a weekend of sidewalk shopping with a local sneak preview day on August 29.

"With the hotels full, with the day traffic from locals coming for restaurants and shopping, it should be a crazy, busy weekend," Rochon said.

Infrastructure improvements in the region are helping to move visitors in and out of the area.

Of the 109,046 vehicles recorded at the I-95 Hampton tolls on Friday, 65.7 percent used E-Zpass and 71,613 used the ORT lanes.

On Sunday evening between 2 and 7 p.m., the southbound ORT lanes recorded traffic volumes that hovered around 3,500 vehicles per hour for the two ORT lanes. The average speed during this time was 55 mph.

Chris Waszczuk, administrator for the New Hampshire Department of Transportation's Bureau of Turnpikes, said a variety of factors likely contributed to the high-volume weekend, and people's decisions to travel this summer overall.

"I think that gas prices have stabilized a bit, come down a little bit, the weather was very, very good, and I think with the ORT at Hampton traffic seems to be moving more freely and people find it convenient to travel that corridor," Waszczuk said.

He said the Hampton Toll Plaza used to be a source of traffic delays, but is no longer a problem.

About 70 percent of the traffic going through the Hampton tolls this past weekend was from out of state, based on E-Zpass registrations, Waszczuk said, with the majority being from Massachusetts as well as a high percentage from Maine.

Waszczuk said the tolls are really a user fee allowing the state to maintain a turnpike system for residents and visitors.

"If we didn't have that revenue coming in from those out-of-staters, they would be just traveling on that corridor and not paying. This really allows us to have a first-class, state-of-the-art facility on 95 and the rest of the turnpike system for the travelers and the users who are paying for use of the road," Waszczuk said.

Being in the transportation industry, Waszczuk said he might be biased, but he believes infrastructure has a huge impact on whether people will visit a place.

"If you have lousy roads and it is congested and in poor condition, it is going to detract from people visiting. If you have good roads and people are not caught in congestion all the time, I think that would be an attraction in terms of visiting the state and tourism," Waszczuk said.

AAA and the research group HIS Global Insight expect 34.1 million people in the country to take a trip of 50 miles or more, a 4.2 percent increase over the 32.7 million who traveled during the holiday a year ago.

They expect 85 percent of travelers to go by car.

The New Hampshire Division of Travel and Tourism Development expects to have Labor Day projections for the state late next week.

gmacalaster@newstote.com


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