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SALT LAKE CITY — Thanksgiving travel is expected to reach close to pre-pandemic levels this year, as millions of Americans are expected to drive to celebrate the holiday with loved ones.
The annual AAA Thanksgiving travel forecast calls for a near return to 2019 travel numbers this year after a dropoff last year during the pandemic. It estimates 53.4 million Americans will travel in some form or fashion over the holiday week, 48.3 million — about 90% — by car. The automobile projection is 3% below 2019 numbers but an 8% jump from 2020 levels.
Aldo Vazquez, the spokesman for AAA Utah, said earlier this month that Thanksgiving travelers "can expect to face more crowded roads ... than they've seen in some time." The Utah Department of Transportation warns that the uptick in travel will result in traffic delays, especially the day before the holiday and the end of the long weekend.
Expected traffic delays
Wednesday is expected to be the busiest traffic day of the week, which is anticipated to result in I-15 delays ranging from 10 to 15 minutes due to traffic congestion. UDOT traffic engineers say drivers should prepare for delays up to 10 minutes on northbound I-15 from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. and on southbound I-15 in the Nephi area from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday, as well as up to 15 minutes on southbound I-15 in the Salt Lake County from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m.
They added that delays up to 20 minutes are expected on northbound I-15 from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday as drivers return home from celebrating the holiday.
As with other holidays, UDOT will suspend construction and open almost all lanes of traffic to reduce traffic headaches. That said, the agency says drivers should prepare for some closures and reduced speeds across the state this weekend. They include:
- I-15 (Layton through Riverdale): Three lanes are open in both directions between Layton and Riverdale, but the speed limit is reduced to 60 mph because of a work zone in the area. UDOT is widening I-15 to extend express lanes in both directions in the area. The project is expected to be completed sometime next year.
- I-80 and I-215 (Salt Lake County): Lanes are "shifted and narrowed" on I-80 in Salt Lake City between 1300 East and 2300 East, as well as on the connection to the I-215 east belt. There are also lane splits slated to be installed this week on southbound I-215 from 3800 South to 4500 South in eastern Salt Lake County. Drivers will have to remain in the right two lanes to reach the 3900 South and 4500 South exits. This configuration, according to UDOT, is expected to remain in place into early next year, and the project will wrap up in late 2022.
- State Route 39 (Ogden Canyon): Once again, S.R. 39 is reduced to one lane with alternating traffic controlled by a temporary signal between Ogden and Pineview Reservoir. Delays up to 15 minutes are expected for drivers traveling through the canyon.
- U.S. 189 (Provo Canyon): The highway is reduced to one lane in both directions between Bridal Veil Falls and Vivian Park because a new concrete median is being installed. The lane closures are expected to remain in place through mid-December.
State traffic engineers also expect national and state parks to receive "heavier-than-normal visitation" this weekend, which may also result in heavy traffic on roads by the various parks.
"UDOT reminds drivers to be cautious behind the wheel and do their part in making travel safer for everybody by staying alert, using seat belts, putting away distractions and taking breaks to avoid drowsy driving," the agency wrote in a statement.
Utah gas prices up 60% from last Thanksgiving
Utah gas prices are down from summer holiday travel levels but up significantly from last Thanksgiving, according to AAA. The group says the average price for regular gas is about $3.69 per gallon this week, a 60% increase from the $2.30 per gallon at the same time last year.
President Joe Biden on Tuesday ordered that 50 million barrels of gas will be released in an effort to reduce energy costs, but that likely won't impact prices this week. Utah's current price of gas is about 29 cents per gallon above the national average.
The average cost of diesel is $4.05 per gallon, 41 cents above the national average.
AAA's average also varies from county to county. So, where is gas the cheapest and most expensive in Utah this week?
- Sevier County: $3.49
- Sanpete County: $3.57
- Uintah County: $3.61
- Duchesne County: $3.62
- Juab County: $3.63
- Daggett County: $4.01
- Beaver County: $3.93
- Garfield County: $3.91
- Wayne County: $3.89
- Piute County: $3.85
Those looking to drive out of state but staying in the West are likely to continue to have to pay more at the pump than others in the country. AAA reports that the West continues to have the highest gas prices in the U.S.
Prices ease up for those driving east of Utah. Oklahoma, for instance, has the cheapest average price in the nation this week at $2.98 per gallon.
Here is what it looks like in the region:
- Arizona: $3.74
- California: $4.71
- Colorado: $3.47
- Idaho: $3.68
- Nevada: $3.97
- New Mexico: $3.35
- Oregon: $3.78
- Washington: $3.88
- Wyoming: $3.47
Be prepared to pay a little more at the pump this holiday weekend.