Thanksgiving travel dash under way, with nearly 40 million expected to hit roads, rails, skies

Wednesday, November 22nd 2006, 10:11 pm

By: News On 6

Long lines formed at airports well before daybreak Wednesday, and some drivers in the South saw winter hit the roads early as millions of Americans made the annual dash home for Thanksgiving.

The AAA estimated that 38.3 million people would travel 50 miles or more for Thanksgiving -- up a million from last year.

Moderating gas prices may be one reason for the increase, said the automobile association's Robert Sinclair.

Since peaking above $3 per gallon in early August, gasoline pump prices have dropped by around 80 cents per gallon nationwide in the past three months. Wednesday's nationwide average gas price was $2.23 a gallon, according to AAA.

Thanksgiving air travel was expected to surge, too. AAA predicted 4.8 million travelers will fly to their Thanksgiving destination. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey
anticipated 1.6 million passengers -- about 2 percent more than last year -- would pass through LaGuardia, John F. Kennedy International and Newark Liberty International airports.

By late afternoon Wednesday, the strains were evident, with airports reporting delays, and traffic jams on major thoroughfares. The National Weather Service predicted heavy rain and winds in New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. -- conditions that promised
to further aggravate travel conditions.

At LaGuardia, arrivals were delayed about two hours, and departures about an hour and a half, said Steve Coleman, Port Authority spokesman. Kennedy Airport had 30-minute delays on arrivals and departures, while Newark Liberty International Airport had an average hour-long delay on arrivals.

Traffic was moving smoothly at several other major airports, including the world's busiest, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

"I expected it to be a lot worse than it is, but the day is still young," said Steve Miller as he waited for relatives arriving from Fort Myers, Fla.

At Boston's Logan International Airport, wait times at security checkpoints were averaging less than 10 minutes and there were no long lines at ticket counters at midday.

Drivers in parts of North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia faced high winds and flooded roads Wednesday as an early winter storm swept across the South.

The weather slowed traffic between the Carolinas on Interstate 95, one of the main arteries for East Coast travel. Some ferry service along North Carolina's coast was halted on Wednesday due to the storm; the state Department of Transportation said it would
likely not resume until Thanksgiving Day.

In Virginia, a tunnel between Norfolk and Portsmouth was shut down because of high water, and high winds prompted operators of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel to limit vehicles crossing the span to cars and pickup trucks.

Motorists along Interstate 40, an east-west highway that spans more than 2,500 miles, were seeing more than just fall colors along the route: State troopers will be posted every 10 miles.

The coordinated effort between state police in the eight states the highway passes through -- California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina -- is aimed at reducing accidents and fatalities Wednesday and Thursday.

One of Southern California's busiest freeways was shut down on one side for hours when a flatbed truck carrying hazardous materials jackknifed, spilling 55-gallon drums of acetone and rubbing alcohol.

Southbound traffic on Interstate 405 in Hawthorne became so backed up some drivers were directed to travel in the wrong direction to the nearest exit to help ease the gridlock. The truck's driver and another motorist were hospitalized with minor injuries, the Los Angeles County Fire Department reported.

In New York, scores of people packed the train waiting area at Pennsylvania Station by noon, including Sandra Clifton. Her flight last year to Pittsburgh took so long -- 27 hours thanks to flight cancellations and delays -- that this year she was taking the train to see different relatives outside Philadelphia.

"It broke my mother's heart," said Clifton, 39. "I love my family. I just can't always get to them."

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