Beachgoing Washingtonians will run into some of the worst summertime bottlenecks in the nation over what is expected to be a record-cracking Independence Day weekend, according to a national report released yesterday.
The survey found that three of the five most congested summer hot spots in the country are prime choices for Washingtonians: The Tidewater area ranked second, the Maryland-Delaware shore was third and the Outer Banks of North Carolina came in fifth.
Other popular destinations such as the New Jersey shore, Cape Cod and the Pennsylvania Dutch and Amish country also made the top 10. The Oregon coast topped the list of worst summertime drives.
"Many of us spend the beginning and end of our vacations sitting in congestion that rivals our daily commutes," said Greg Cohen, president and chief executive of the American Highway Users Alliance, one of the sponsors of the study.
Melanie Fett knows that she probably will be one of them this weekend. She's taking the seventh-worst drive in the nation to the Jersey shore to enjoy the beach with friends. At least, they'll be enjoying the beach; she'll be driving.
"It won't be much, like an afternoon," she said of her expected time on the sand. "It's a lot of driving for a little bit of time."
Fett said her strategy is to leave around 7 a.m. Saturday and take back roads through New Jersey in the hopes of missing most of the mess. Still, she pretty much figures it's going to be wretched.
"It's stressful to think about the amount of driving and traffic," the Arlingtonian said.
The Independence Day holiday is expected to anchor a summer travel season like no other. Travel industry experts predict that Americans will take 328 million leisure trips this summer, up 2.3 percent from an all-time high in 2004.
Washingtonians are doing their part. Traffic watchers predicted that never-before-seen numbers of travelers -- more even than over the Thanksgiving holiday -- will flee the area for beaches, mountains and other warm-weather getaways this weekend.
AAA predicted that about 620,000 Washingtonians, or 13 percent, will head out of town. The overwhelming number of those are likely to drive, brushing aside gas prices that average $2.19 a gallon, 26 cents higher than last year.
Nationally, AAA estimated that 40.3 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more over the weekend, a 2.8 percent increase from the 39.2 million who traveled last year. The local and national results are based on a survey of 1,300 Americans by AAA.
The summer bottleneck survey was a joint project of the Highway Users Alliance, AAA and TRIP, a transportation research group. Representatives from the groups called for more transportation funding to make changes, including widening roads, adding turn lanes and improving efforts to clear roads of accidents and breakdowns.
The survey of summer bottlenecks looked at the anticipated numbers of vacationers as well as the roads and bridges available to handle them. It noted that many beach destinations are served by rural two-lane roads, which are especially susceptible to backups.
It also said that the limited number of bridges on many coastal routes adds delays, often reaching hours, on many trips. People going to the Delaware and Maryland shores, for instance, usually begin their vacations by sitting in long lines at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.
A third of all vacation trips are taken during the summer, and seven in 10 summer travelers go to a beach or lake.
Traffic experts said there's not too much that drivers can do to bypass congestion. They suggested avoiding peak periods of leaving Friday afternoons and returning Sunday afternoons, but they also acknowledged that as more people begin to take that advice, other times clog as well. Not to mention that leaving at odd hours doesn't leave much time for relaxing.
"During the summer season, these roads are oftentimes overwhelmed," said Frank R. Moretti, director of policy and research at TRIP. "We're at the risk of seeing some of our summer vacation areas become less accessible."
The to-go or not-to-go decision is wracking Robert Kotwicki of Fairfax County, who is mulling a trip to the Outer Banks to see family.
"I'm 50-50 right now," he said. "I need to find a time to go that the traffic wouldn't be too, too bad."
Good luck. Not only do the Outer Banks have the fifth-worst summertime traffic in the country, but Kotwicki would have to drive through No. 2 Tidewater to get there.
He's thinking maybe he could leave tonight or really early tomorrow and come back late Sunday night. But maybe not either.
"I'm torn between relaxing here and relaxing there for a shorter period of time," Kotwicki said. "There's so many other people on the road, it's almost not worth it."