Arkansans to jam state highways, interstates during Thanksgiving, fueled by cheaper gas

by Wesley Brown ([email protected]) 114 views 

Cheap gasoline prices across Arkansas and the rest of the U.S. will likely result in more traffic on the trip to grandmother’s house as record numbers of travelers are expected to hit the nation’s highways and airlines this Thanksgiving Day and Black Friday weekend.

According to AAA, more than 46.9 million Americans plan to travel 50 miles or more from home during the Thanksgiving holiday, a 0.6% jump from a year ago and the most since 2007. Traditionally, the Thanksgiving holiday travel period begins at noon on Wednesday, Nov. 25 and runs through Sunday, Nov. 29.

“This Thanksgiving, more Americans will carve out time to visit friends and family since 2007,” said AAA President and CEO Marshall Doney. “While many people remain cautious about the economy and their finances, many thankful Americans continue to put a premium on traveling to spend the holiday with loved ones.”

With those record number of travelers on the roads, AAA and GasBuddy officials most recent forecasts show pump prices this Thanksgiving season will be the lowest since 2008 and 2009, respectively, when the U.S. economy began emerging out of Great Recession.

GasBuddy spokesman Patrick DeHaan said he expects most drivers across the U.S. this Thanksgiving will see the cheapest gasoline prices since March 2009. The low prices will save motorists nearly $1.5 billion over the five days of fall holiday, the Gaithersburg, Md.-based pump price portal said a recent survey.

GasBuddy projects that by Thanksgiving Day the national average will be $1.99 per gallon, nearly 80 cents per gallon cheaper than last year and $1.29 per gallon cheaper than 2013. As of Monday (Nov. 23), the national average for a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline is $2.07, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

As pump prices have plunged, GasBuddy says the number of states seeing average prices under $2 per gallon has more than tripled in the last two weeks, rising to 19 states, with nearly 60% of all U.S. gas stations now selling below $2 per gallon.

“With gas prices plunging under $2 just in time for Thanksgiving Day, it’s a perfect reminder – some folks automatically expect gas prices to rise in advance of a major travel holiday, that’s become a popular misconception and this holiday exemplifies the point. November gas prices have slid significantly lower and holiday travelers will certainly be the beneficiaries,” said Patrick DeHaan, a senior petroleum analyst with GasBuddy. “It’s a trend we expect will continue through the end of 2015, so if you like the prices you see on Thanksgiving, you’ll be delighted when Christmas arrives!”

SOME ARKANSAS PRICES BELOW $1.80
In Arkansas, local drivers and motorists traveling through the state will see pump prices that are 10% to 20% cheaper than the national average during the long fall holiday, according to AAA’s daily fuel gauge. On Monday, the average price for a gallon of regular unleaded across the state is $1.90 with several areas of the state seeing average prices below the $1.80 level, AAA says.

Pump prices in the state’s metropolitan areas, which are expected to continue falling as Thanksgiving Day approaches, range from a low of $1.80 per gallon in the Fort Smith area to a high of $2.02 per gallon in Northwest Arkansas. Motorists on both sides of the Texarkana state line are seeing prices at an average of $1.84 per gallon, and the central Arkansas and Pine Bluff markets are posting average pump prices of $1.94 and $1.98 per gallon, respectively.

However, Gasbuddy.com’s real-time gasoline price app, which lists Arkansas among the top 10 states with the cheapest gas prices, shows several isolated state line retail locations with gasoline signs showing prices for regular unleaded below $1.70 per gallon in Fort Smith, Texarkana, Bentonville and West Memphis. The lowest price seen in the state was found at the Sunshine gasoline station in Siloam Springs near the Arkansas-Oklahoma border.

Drivers choosing to fill up the tanks with a higher-grade of gasoline should expect to pay an average premium of $2.39 a gallon across the state. Big rig drivers and other diesel fuel users will see pump prices at about $2.26 a gallon, down a $1.19 per gallon from a year ago.

LANE CLOSURES REDUCED
As cheap gas prices fueling record holiday travel, Arkansas roads could be congested in a number of areas where there is major construction on the interstates and busy highways. However, Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department (AHTD) spokesman Danny Straessle said highway construction is well below recent Thanksgivings where projects in Central Arkansas and on Interstates 30 and 40 have created major bottlenecks.

“We have a major lull in activity,” Straessle said, citing only 11 miles of actual lane closures on major interstates and highways across the state. Those lane closures during the Thanksgiving weekend, he said, will funnel traffic down to one lane for four miles on I-30 in Benton County to westbound travelers, and for seven miles on both sides of I-530 in Jefferson County between Little Rock and Pine Bluff.

Straessle, AHTD’s public information officer, said although there are other projects where concrete barriers and orange highway barrels may slow traffic on Interstate 40 in Central Arkansas and other areas of the state, those areas should only experience minimal delays that should not dramatically interrupt travel times.

In central Arkansas, Straessle said, recent and ongoing highway projects should actually improve travel flow in some areas. For example, recent road upgrades between Maumelle and Conway on I-40 have improved to three lanes – reducing traffic bottlenecks and smoothing out traffic flow leaving and entering the Little Rock area.

“Those improvements are really exciting and are among a number of projects we have going that have improved traffic on the state’s highway system,” the highway department spokesman said.

TRAFFIC TRENDS, ALTERNATE ROUTE SUPPORT
Straessle also said Thanksgiving Day travel has an interesting trend where inbound traffic following the traditional day of giving thanks, eating and watching football creates traffic nightmares and bottlenecks. That occurs when most families decide to make the trip home on the Sunday after church – “at the same time,” he said.

“That is the day when folks really need to be the most vigilant on the state’s highways because everybody’s in a hurry to get back home from grandmother’s house to get back to work on Monday and get the kids ready for school,” Straessle said.

On Friday, the Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department also reminded drivers to visit IDriveArkansas.com before and during traveling this Thanksgiving holiday weekend to map out the extensive highway construction projects across the state.

“With those improvements come work zones. To aid in your holiday travel, AHTD has been working hard to open as many lanes as possible,” the highway department said in a news release. “Still, travelers will likely face work zones and possible delays due to increased traffic volume.”

To help motorists find ways around accidents and work zone backups on the state’s interstates, AHTD has an alternate route feature at IDriveArkansas.com that helps drivers to navigate around problem areas.

AIRLINES FARES FALL, HOTEL RATES FLAT
Travelers taking to the nation’s airways will also see a 10% decrease in fares to most of their favorite destinations as jet fuel prices are pushing down airline tickets in most markets, although most airlines have pocketed the lion’s share of profits from cheaper fuel prices and higher baggage fees.

According to AAA’s Leisure Travel Index, average airfares will land at about per $169 roundtrip on the top 40 domestic flight routes.

Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officials expect 40,400 passengers will fly out of the Clinton National Airport – Arkansas’ largest commercial field – during the Thanksgiving period, which began Nov. 19 and ends Monday, Nov. 30. The projection is up 2.75% from last year’s total of 39,318. Sunday is expected to be the busiest day with 4,300 people departing from the airport.

The lower fuel prices and airline fares will be partly offset by flat to higher prices for hotel stays and rental car fees. Rates for AAA Three Diamond Rated lodgings are expected to remain relatively flat, with travelers spending an average of $155 per night. The average rate for a AAA Two Diamond Rated hotel has risen four percent with an average nightly cost of $118. Daily car rental rates will average $60, eight percent higher than last Thanksgiving.