Friday, December 21, 2007

Snow slows holiday travel

Travel costs don?t stop holiday travelers


By GREG STAHL
Express Staff Writer

As cars and SUVs fought their way through the snow Thursday morning in central Ketchum, one commuter took a different approach. Snowfall this week interrupted highway and airport travel in the area, but softened up ski slopes for the holiday season. Photo by David N. Seelig

It's a blessing for skiers and snowboarders, but this week's snows encumbered holiday travel in Central Idaho.

Highways throughout the region, including state Highway 75 in the Wood River Valley and U.S. Highway 20, which connects the valley with areas to the east and west, were covered with packed and drifting snow Thursday afternoon. Highway 21, which connects Stanley with towns to the west, was closed.

As well, the runway at Friedman Memorial Airport in Hailey was closed during portions of the day Wednesday and Thursday, and some incoming passengers were instead flown to Twin Falls and driven via bus to the Wood River Valley.

Airport maintenance crews cleared the runway as snow fell, but visibility limited options for landing planes.

On the region's highways, everything is business as usual, and road surfaces should soon be clear.

"So far everything's going pretty good," said Nathan Jerkey, a public information specialist for District 4 of the Idaho Transportation Department. "There's a little bit of extra snow in the Wood River Valley than we see through most of the district."

Jerkey said six highway maintenance personnel work out of Hailey.

"They do their best to keep things clear on Highway 75," Jerkey said.

He said this week's storm shouldn't pose any significant challenges to holiday travel.

"It's a pretty standard year so far," he said. "Usually, within an hour of when a storm starts the trucks are on the road. With only six people working Highway 75, and then they go east and west on Highway 20 as well, they do as good as they can trying to keep up with everything."

Information on Idaho road conditions can be found on www.511.idaho.gov, or by cell phone by dialing 511.

Weather aside, AAA is predicting that 65.2 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more from home during the Christmas-New Year holiday, a gain of 0.7 percent from a year ago. And that is despite significantly higher travel costs than those of a year ago.

AAA said travelers will pay about $3 per gallon for gas in most parts of the country, compared with average prices of around $2.30 a year ago. Those flying are finding airfares averaging 16 percent more than last Christmas.

Based on AAA's Daily Fuel Gauge Report, Idaho's average price for regular gasoline is $3.08, down 2 cents from Thanksgiving but 71 cents more than the $2.38 price a year ago.

"The high price of petroleum products is hitting consumers in the pocketbook whether they're driving or flying," said AAA Idaho spokesman Dave Carlson. "These are the highest gasoline prices motorists have ever paid in December."

AAA predicts 65.2 million Americans will travel during a 12-day period between Dec. 19 and Dec. 30, up from last year's 64.7 million travelers. Approximately 53 million Americans, or 81 percent of all travelers, expect to go by motor vehicle, a 0.9 percent increase from the 52.5 million who drove in 2006.

According to AAA's Leisure Travel Index, hotel rates for AAA-rated Three Diamond hotels, when compared to Christmas and New Year's weeks a year ago, climbed 4 percent and 9 percent respectively.

The only area of relief for travelers comes by way of lower car rental rates, which are down 4 percent this Christmas week and 13 percent compared to New Year's week a year ago, AAA said.

In addition to the 53 million travelers on the road, another 8.9 million Americans, or 13.7 percent of holiday travelers, will fly, a slight decrease of 0.3 percent from last Christmas holiday. A projected 3.3 million travelers will go by train, bus or other mode of transportation.

The survey showed 62.5 percent of those traveling will do so with children. More than 70 percent of households with children under the age of 18 are traveling this holiday period and plan to take their children with them.

The Southeast is expected to produce the largest number of automobile travelers, with 14 million, followed by the West with 13.2 million, Midwest with 10.3 million, the Great Lakes with 8.4 million and the Northeast with 7.2 million.

Based on projections from the survey, AAA expects that 280,000 Idahoans will be drivers or passengers in motor vehicles traveling 50 miles or more during the Christmas-New Year's holiday period. That compares to about 276,000 Idahoans who hit the roads a year ago.

The greatest number of air travelers will also originate from the Southwest, with 2.7 million, followed by the West with 2.5 million; the Northeast with 1.8 million; Midwest with 1 million; and the Great Lakes with 909,000.




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