Transportation officials ready for holiday travelers
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - State transportation officials are urging travelers to be patient and cautious during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend - the busiest travel weekend of the year.
National travel firm AAA estimates 43.6 million people will travel 50 miles or more over the next five days, up just 0.7 percent from last year. The vast majority, 39.1 million, will travel by automobile.
AAA said today and Sunday will be the peak travel days, with 45 percent of drivers saying they will leave home today and 38 percent making the return trip on Sunday.
Officials at the state Department of Transportation are preparing for the crunch.
Department spokesman Brent Walker said crews have cleared most major construction and maintenance projects ahead of the holiday weekend to aid in traffic flow.
"The major interstates will be construction free," Walker said. "Any other major projects we have - in form of bridge work or road work - we'll be postponing until after the holiday season."
The weekend weather forecast also appears to be in travelers' favor. High temperatures should range from the low 60s to the 40s, with a chance of light rain only on Friday.
Walker said the state plans to have its full staff of Courtesy Patrol drivers out to assist motorists in need.
In high traffic areas, particularly the West Virginia Turnpike, some staff will be reassigned to provide extra assistance on the highways.
"We'll have additional maintenance crews on the Turnpike that will be available to assist motorists as needed," Walker said.
Extra workers will man toll plazas along the 88 miles of Turnpike between Princeton and Charleston.
The toll plazas can become a major traffic bottleneck over the holiday weekend. Even with all tollbooths open, traffic still can back up during peak travel hours.
The message boards along the Turnpike have been programmed with requests for drivers to have toll money ready before they get to the booth.
Officials expect the most traffic between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. Sunday. They ask travelers to try to schedule their return trips before or after those hours.
Those who do plan to be on the roads at that time are asked to remain calm.
"That's just when you're going to have to be patient," Walker said.
The nightmare travel scenario is when impatient holiday travelers make risky driving decisions, cause an accident and tie up traffic during peak hours.
Walker said drivers should stay alert, drive defensively and stay with the traffic flow.
"If everybody remains patient and doesn't get in a hurry, I think you'll be fine," he said.
Transportation officials plan to keep the department's Twitter and Facebook pages updated with traffic information over the weekend. Drivers can check travel conditions on those pages at www.facebook.com/WVDOT and www.twitter.com/WVDOT.
Travelers can also look up road conditions online at www.transportation.wv.gov.
Walker said the state would use message boards along major highways to alert drivers to any major traffic accidents or back-ups.
While it won't be available for Thanksgiving traffic, the state's new 511 travel information system should be operating by Christmas.
The state has spent all year developing the system, which will provide travel updates through a special website, by phone, smartphone app or text message alert.
Officials plan to debut the system in early December and encourage drivers to use it when they travel to Christmas or New Year's destinations.
"When we have this conversation a month from now, we'll be saying, 'Call 511 or go to 511.org and know before you go,' " Walker said. "We're excited to help the traveling public with a great resource for information."
Contact writer Jared Hunt at email@example.com or 304-348-5148.