Traffic moves up the northbound lanes of the Maine Turnpike in Wells on Friday afternoon, the start of the long Labor Day weekend. With gas prices easing, state officials were expecting heavy tourist traffic over the three days and into the fall. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

More than 1 million vehicles are expected on the Maine Turnpike this long, holiday weekend as travelers and locals celebrate the unofficial end of summer.

Falling gas prices and the recovering economy could encourage more people to take to the roads and skies for Labor Day and into autumn.

Traffic on the Maine Turnpike this weekend could surpass a record set in 2019, said spokeswoman Erin Courtney. The toll highway was on pace for a banner year before a run-up in fuel prices dampened that growth, she said.

Fourth of July weekend traffic was lower than expected, but then gasoline prices started falling and tourists swarmed back. August weekends are typically the turnpike’s busiest times of year.

“In August, just as gas prices were decreasing, we saw the number of toll transactions rebounding. We ended up positive for the month,” Courtney said.

In the first week of July, a gallon of gasoline cost $4.87 on average in the U.S. Two months later, in the last week of August, a gallon cost an average of $3.82, a 22 percent decrease but still higher than any time in the last 10 years, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.


In Maine, gas prices went from an average high of $5.09 a gallon in mid-July to $3.93 a gallon on Friday, according to AAA.

Social changes during the pandemic have also changed the flow of traffic on the turnpike. In the before times, heavy volumes on Friday and Monday of a long holiday weekend were routine, Courtney said. Nowadays, traffic peaks are spread out, as travelers spend more time in Maine.

“People have more remote options at work, more flexibility to leave and stay,” Courtney said. “It is more traffic the whole time, the whole weekend, even into Tuesday.”

Earlier this summer, there were jitters that workforce challenges, high gas prices and inflation could torpedo Maine’s summer tourism season, the industry’s highest earning period of the year. Restaurateurs and seasonal businesses said they could not find enough workers and had to cut back open hours to stay afloat.

According to a AAA survey, gas prices and inflation took a bite out of tourism, with 66 percent of respondents saying they traveled less over the summer and 80 percent saying they cut back on spending.

Despite those pressures, spending on hotels and restaurants in the first six months of the year was brisk. People shelled out more than $2 billion on lodging and restaurants between January and June, according to the most recent figures from Maine Revenue Services.


That was a 15 percent spending bump from last year, and occurred as the annualized inflation rate hit 9 percent in June.

Sunny, warm, dry weather and moderating gas prices made all the difference in the second half of summer, said Tony Cameron, CEO of the Maine Tourism Association. Still, high costs and competition for workers have worn out business owners as the season draws to a close.

“Businesses have said they are busy just like last year, but it has been a grind,” Cameron said.

Although Labor Day is summer’s unofficial end and many families return from the road for jobs and school, the pace of travel is likely to remain strong through autumn. More than 70 percent of respondents to a AAA survey in August said they planned to take a leisure trip after Labor Day.

“Shoulder season” has become increasingly important to Maine’s tourism economy. Travelers are adding more to the bottom lines of restaurants, hotels and retailers, even well past Indigenous People’s Day in early October. Early and mid-autumn is also when most of the largest cruise ships visit Portland and Bar Harbor.

Maine can expect plenty of travelers through this fall, according to Cameron.

“A lot of destinations don’t start to get quiet until November,” he said. “It’s a great trend we’ve experienced.”

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