Cheaper Gas May Drive More to Hit the Road for Thanksgiving, AAA Says

By Dylan Moroses

If you're traveling through Maryland or Virginia this holiday season and don't have cash or an E-ZPASS to pay the tolls, don't panic. See the solution in the sidebar at the bottom of this article. (Photo courtesy Maryland Transportation Authority.)

ANNAPOLIS–Low gas prices, increased police presence, suspended roadwork and toll booth failsafes may provide motorists cheaper, safer and quicker Thanksgiving travel across Maryland.

The Maryland Transportation Authority expects a 1 percent increase in road traffic during the holiday travel period, between the Tuesday before Thanksgiving and the Sunday following the holiday, Sales said.

Regionally around Washington, D.C., AAA predicted, over 1 million area residents will be traveling during the holiday, just over a 3 percent increase from last year’s figures.

AAA attributes the increase in Thanksgiving motor travel nationwide to a better general economic climate and the lowest gas price averages since 2010, said AAA President Marshall Doney.

“Gas prices as low as $2.50 are another holiday gift to motorists,” AAA Mid Atlantic spokesman Lon Anderson said.

The Maryland Transportation Authority Police will dispatch additional patrols on Maryland roadways during Thanksgiving travel times to emphasize the new “Move Over” law, which includes tow vehicles, and will enforce drunken-driving violations, which typically see a spike during the holiday season, said Maryland Transportation Authority Police 1st Sgt. Jonathan Green.

The Maryland Transportation Authority Police patrols will be on standby during peak hours to quickly respond to any emergencies, including crashes and disabled vehicles, Green said.

“Traffic in this area is very fluid; it changes very rapidly,” Green said.

The Maryland State Highway Administration increases its emergency roadside patrols and suspends all non-emergency roadwork during Thanksgiving week, getting out of Maryland drivers’ way, said Charlie Gischlar, spokesman for the administration.

“Drivers should focus on driving,” Green said. “There are a lot less crashes when people are focused. Let someone else worry about navigating, texting, calling and using the phone.”

Preparing a vehicle with a quick checkup before traveling can help prevent a breakdown on the road, he said.

“A five-minute walk around your car helps a lot before going on a long trip,” Gischlar said. “Check everything, especially tire treads, batteries and hoses to make sure everything is in safe working order.”

Though it won’t happen in time for Thanksgiving, drivers on I-95 north of Baltimore will see some relief before the Christmas holidays on a new toll highway.

Between Dec. 6 and Dec. 12, Maryland motorists should find travel free on the all-video and E-ZPass Interstate 95 Express Toll Lanes, which extend from Joppa Road to the Interstates 895 and 95 split.

Beginning Dec. 13 E-ZPass prices one way for cars and motorcycles to travel the express lanes will be $1.75 during peak hours, $1.49 during off-peak and 70 cents during overnight hours.

The Maryland Transportation Authority anticipates the road will hasten the trip for motorists who use it, as well as ease traffic for drivers who stay on nearby local lanes, Sales said.

Anderson said he sees the “horrendous mess” of traffic buildups on Interstate 95 in the Baltimore area traveling to and from Wilmington, Delaware, where AAA Mid-Atlantic is headquartered.

When the Virginia 495 Express Lanes opened between Springfield and the Dulles Toll Road in November 2012, AAA was opposed, believing they would bring a “two-tiered transportation system where the rich will roll and the poor will poke,” Anderson explained.

“We know now from the express lanes in Virginia on Interstate 495 that express lanes take enough traffic off of regular ones, but there was real confusion among motorists when they opened,” Anderson said. “Drivers would unintentionally get on the toll lanes, and try to back up down the road along the shoulder.”

Anderson said he hopes the Maryland Transportation Authority will do a better job to inform drivers of the fees and rules before Christmas, especially for drivers new to the Baltimore-area Express Toll Lanes.

Maryland’s previous effort to launch the Intercounty Connector, an all-video and E-ZPass toll road connecting central Montgomery County with northwestern Prince George’s County, fell short when an “artificially slow” 55 mph speed limit and frequent police ticketing plagued the winter 2011 opening, Anderson said.

The state’s transportation agency is also exploring the idea of opening exclusive video-toll and E-ZPass facilities, like those at the ICC and upcoming I-95 lanes, at some of their existing cash and E-ZPass stations.

Some of the cash and E-ZPass toll booths that could transform into electronic tolling take over are the Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge facility on U.S. Route 40 between Cecil and Harford Counties and the Francis Scott Key Bridge toll in Baltimore, Sales said.

Just Driving Through? What Happens If You Don’t Have E-ZPASS or Cash

Motorists without an E-ZPass or cash can drive right through any toll facility in Maryland and are mailed an invoice with a picture of the vehicle’s license plate and a fee 50 percent more than the regular toll, said John Sales, public affairs manager for the Maryland Transportation Authority. These include both E-ZPass-only lanes or cash toll booths.

Drivers with no means of payment in Virginia at a toll facility may drive through, and later call 877-762-7824 toll-free between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., Monday through Friday, to pay their tolls without any additional fees, said Shannon Marshall, spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Transportation.

Motorists who do not contact the Virginia Department of Transportation will receive an invoice that they must pay within 30 days. If they do not respond, another notice is sent with a 15-day deadline. If that is not returned, civil penalties ensue, which can accumulate in a hurry, and a court summons is issued.

Civil penalties in Virginia for toll violation include $50 for the first offense, $100 for a second offense within a year of the first, $250 for the third offense within two years of the second and a minimum of $500 for each violation after three.

If a toll violation reaches court in Maryland, a motorist would pay $50 for each violation.

In Maryland, drivers with outstanding toll fines and court summonses could have their license suspended or registration marked for non-renewal.

Both states will use collection agencies to contact violators.

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