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Holiday travel through Waco a mystery as Thanksgiving approaches

Holiday travel through Waco a mystery as Thanksgiving approaches

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For years Interstate 35 between Austin and the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex resembled a large parking lot on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Motorists traveling each way only dreamed of reaching destinations on time.

But 2020 is a wild card, considering the uncertainties of COVID-19 and the warnings against large gatherings around turkey and all the trimmings. Toss in the continued construction along I-35 as a $341 million widening project continues, and this driving season could become one for the ages. Regardless, public health officials recommend residents celebrate Thanksgiving in-person only with the people they live with.

The AAA auto club predicts 50 million Americans will hit the roads over the Thanksgiving holiday this year, a 10% decline from last year. However, that prediction is based on mid-October modeling. With the dramatic spike in cases nationwide and locally that started last month and more public health warnings, AAA now anticipates travel will drop off even more than initially projected, according to a press release.

“The wait-and-see travel trend continues to impact final travel decisions, especially for the Thanksgiving holiday,” AAA Senior Vice President Paula Twidale said in the press release. “The decision to travel is a personal one. For those who are considering making a trip, the majority will go by car, which provides the flexibility to modify holiday travel plans up until the day of departure.”

AAA predicts about 2.4 million Americans will travel by air, an almost 50% decline year-over-year.

American Eagle flies daily between Waco Regional Airport and Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, serving as a feeder for American Airlines.

“Certainly with the infection rates really throughout the country we’ve seen a dampening of demand,” American Airlines President Robert Isom said at an airline industry conference and quoted by The Dallas Morning News. “It’s too soon to tell how deep and how long there may be a depressed environment, but we’ve seen some weakening of bookings.”

The largest U.S. carriers have reported losses of more than $20 billion the past two quarters. Passenger counts have dropped more than 60% from pre-pandemic levels, and many planes are flying half-full, The Dallas Morning News reported.

Motorists who do venture out will find gas prices a pleasant surprise.

AAA Texas reported Thursday the average price for a gallon of regular unleaded stands at $1.80, a penny less than on the previous Thursday and 44 cents less than on the same day last year.

But cheaper prices can be had in communities around the state, including Waco, where H-E-B in Woodway on Friday was asking $1.55 per gallon for regular unleaded, while the H-E-B at Park Lake Drive and North 19th Street had a $1.59 posting for a gallon of regular unleaded.

The Sam’s Club on East Waco Drive was asking $1.56.

GasBuddy.com reported 46% of participants in its annual Thanksgiving Travel Survey said their travel plans have been affected by COVID-19. When asked how their plans have been changed, 71% said they are staying home this year.

Five percent said they are not celebrating Thanksgiving because the coronavirus. Another 20% are celebrating Thanksgiving at a different location this year, and 11% are driving instead of taking other forms of transportation to their destination, according to a press release.

“Gasoline demand has continued to struggle as the coronavirus has kept Americans in their homes keys out of their cars, working and e-learning from home,” GasBuddy analyst Patrick DeHaan said in the press release. “But with positive outcomes from two vaccine trials, we’re beginning to see optimism return.”

Gas prices are creeping up in some places, he said.

“However, the survey results show continued anxiety from motorists even with the lowest Thanksgiving gas prices in years, highlighting the challenges we’re facing in this pandemic,” DeHaan wrote.

Any projection of holiday travel through Waco this year would be an educated guess at best, said Chris Evilia, director of the Waco Metropolitan Planning Organization.

“If someone says they know, they don’t know what they’re talking about,” Evilia said. “Are folks going to follow the advice of the CDC (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and health district and say they won’t travel for Thanksgiving? I don’t think anyone knows.”

Anyone traveling the interstate in and around Waco should watch for lane closures, Texas Department of Transportation spokesperson Jake Smith said.

Crews plan to pave the I-35 northbound frontage road from Behrens Circle to North Loop 340 this week, and doing so will require they close the road and the northbound exit ramp, Exit 339, from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. Sunday through Tuesda, Smith said in a press release.

Drivers will be directed to Behrens Circle, where they can use Business 77 to access North Loop 340. Drivers on the I-35 northbound mainlanes planning to use Exit 339 will be instructed to take the Craven Avenue exit.

Crews also plan to close all lanes of University Parks Drive where they cross under I-35 from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. Monday through Wednesday.

This closure will accommodate work on the southbound I-35 overpass.

Signs will direct motorists to alternate routes, Smith said.


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