Traffic moves along the Maine Turnpike in Saco on Thursday. The Maine Turnpike Authority expects nearly 1 million vehicles to pass through its tollbooths over the long Memorial Day weekend, 76 percent more than at the same time last year.  Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Expect heavy traffic on highways and state roads this holiday weekend with travelers setting out in greater numbers amid falling coronavirus cases, loosened restrictions and climbing vaccination rates.

The Maine Turnpike Authority expects nearly 1 million vehicles to pass through its tollbooths over the long weekend. That’s a 76 percent increase from the same time last year, “but more importantly, not far off from 2019’s record-breaking numbers,” turnpike authority spokeswoman Erin Courtney said.

Overall, 1.7 million New Englanders will take a trip for Memorial Day weekend, a 60 percent jump from last year, according to projections by AAA Northern New England. The vast majority plan to travel by car, but air travel will hit 116,000 leisure travelers, an increase of more than 500 percent.

The actual number of travelers could be higher or lower than predicted, depending on people’s comfort level with the pandemic, the travel agency added.

“If there is an increase in reported cases attributable to new COVID-19 variants, some people may decide to stay home, while others may note the strong progress in vaccinations and make last-minute decisions to travel,” it said in a news release.

Last year at this time, Maine was still crawling out of a statewide lockdown and temporary business closures. Strict travel quarantine rules and closed hotels, restaurants and campgrounds suppressed many interstate trips.

What a difference a year makes. Now, Maine is fully open, with only a recommendation for unvaccinated people to wear masks and no mandates to socially distance indoors or outside.

Since the beginning of May, travelers from every U.S. state have been allowed to visit Maine without quarantining or showing proof of a negative COVID-19 test. Meanwhile, Maine maintains one of the best vaccination rates in the country, with 60 percent of people over 12 having had at least one shot. The state’s coronavirus cases numbers have tumbled to some of their lowest levels in six months.

Traffic on state roads has nearly recovered to pre-pandemic volume, with vehicle travel down less than 4 percent from the same time in 2019, according to the Maine Department of Transportation.

“Statewide vehicle-miles traveled remain on an upward seasonal trend and are at the highest level since October 2020,” the department said in a travel report for the week ending Saturday.

Inbound air and intercity bus passenger volumes last week hit the highest levels since March 2020, according to the department.

As summer travelers surge back onto the roads, transportation authorities are urging caution, especially through construction zones on state highways. The Maine State Police in April announced stepped-up enforcement of traffic laws to counteract erratic and impaired driving, speeding and handheld device use behind the wheel. The agency had limited enforcement of traffic rules during the height of the pandemic.

Multiple major roadwork projects are taking place on Interstate 95 and the turnpike, including the construction of a new toll plaza in York and renovation of the Piscataqua River Bridge between Maine and New Hampshire.

“This summer promises to be unlike any other. The cloud of the pandemic is lifting, and we know people are going to want to get out and enjoy all the great things Maine has to offer,” Maine DOT spokesman Paul Merrill said in a statement. “Pay attention and be extremely careful when passing through work zones. Let’s make sure all our summer memories are good ones.”

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