Travelers headed to the Eastern Shore for the first time since last summer might be surprised. For one thing, the toll has risen to $4 from $2.50. For another, the westbound span is being painted for the first time since it opened in 1973, and scaffolding is likely to be a distraction — and potential hot spot for fender-benders.
"You're sightseeing. They're sightseeing. They hit the brakes. You're still sightseeing," said Kelly Melham, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Transportation Authority. "Bang."
More than 1.8 million motorists are expected to swarm the state's toll facilities from Friday to Monday as part of the unofficial start of summer. Of that total, more than 358,000 vehicles will cross the bridge, the largest potential bottleneck, while more than 435,000 vehicles will travel Interstate 95 north of Baltimore.
But some things will remain the same. A flat tire, an overheated car, a minor accident — annoyances that wouldn't turn a head on any other day — make noggins positively explode in frustration when they cause backups during one of the busiest travel periods of the year.
"It's not the volume," said Gordon Garrettson, the man in charge of operations on the Bay Bridge. "If we don't have an incident, we can move a lot of traffic — up to 4,500 cars an hour in one direction."
Nationally, AAA estimates that 34.8 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more Memorial Day weekend, an increase of 1.2 percent over last year. AAA Mid-Atlantic won't release its Maryland projections until Tuesday, but over the last five years, the average has been 700,000 travelers.
When everything clicks, like last Memorial Day weekend, traffic at both ends of the extended weekend flows over the Bay Bridge like ice cream from a boardwalk soft-serve machine. But when things go awry — think 2009 — the 43-mile trip from Cambridge to the Bay Bridge can exceed 21/2 hours.
Getting to the Bay Bridge early — by 10 a.m. on Thursday, Friday and Sunday and by 7 a.m. on Saturday — is one of the easiest ways to avoid congestion. It's become so much a part of the Maryland summer travel tradition that an increasing number of vacationers are starting even earlier, Garrettson said.
"What was once 8 a.m. became 7:30 and is now 7," he said. "I'd like to think it's because they're listening to us."
Cameras trained on the bridge and spotters at either end let managers know when to reverse traffic flow on one of the three lanes of the westbound span to increase capacity. They also can adjust the number of toll lanes for cash and E-ZPass to ease the crush.
In the event of an accident, highway officials said, motorists should not bail out on local or service roads near the bridge — Whitehall Road and Skidmore Drive in Anne Arundel County or Route 18 on Kent Island.
"Residents can't get out and fire and rescue trucks can't get in," said David Buck, State Highway Administration spokesman. "It becomes a dangerous situation."
On the other hand, he said, there are places farther from the bridge where having a road map can help motorists negotiate their own alternate routes.
To help the public steer around potential trouble spots during the 13 weekends between Memorial Day and Labor Day, transportation officials want to remind motorists of a number of programs.
For Bay Bridge conditions, there's 1-877-BAYSPAN. To get a traffic-camera view of the situation or to sign up for email alerts, go to baybridge.com.
For statewide conditions, call 511 or visit MD511.org. In just the last two weeks, more than 12,000 travelers have signed up for the service, Melham said.
Motorists heading west to Rocky Gap or Deep Creek Lake should keep an eye out for two construction areas that will not be active during the holiday but could cause slowdowns: a bridge replacement project on Interstate 70 over South Street in Frederick, where the roadway narrows; and bridge painting along I-68 in Allegany, Garrett and Washington counties.
Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport is expected to see an uptick in travel this weekend that will increase significantly once school ends in June and then peak in July, spokesman Jonathan Dean said.
Southwest Airlines will be adding larger Boeing 737-800s to its BWI Marshall routes. During the peak travel period, the airline will offer 199 daily departures — the most ever for Southwest at the airport.