Drivers on the road again for Independence Day, AAA says

With gasoline prices well below their summer peaks of two years ago and consumer confidence on the mend, the number of travelers is expected to boom on highways this Independence Day weekend, according to an annual Fourth of July travel forecast from AAA of Southern New England.

The organization's survey, conducted by IHC Global Insight, estimated that 34.9 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more from home between July 2 and July 6, a 17 percent increase from last year. In 2009, 29.8 million Americans traveled in that time frame, according to the forecast.

The rebound is due to steady gasoline prices, AAA spokeswoman Fran Mayko said, and travelers are feeling more secure about the prospects for an economic recovery.

"It's very encouraging to see such a change this summer since the travel industry has really taken hits over the last few years," Mayko said. "The economy, high unemployment and high gas prices have really taken its toll on travel in the last few years and because people were forced to spend their dollars elsewhere on the basics rather than extras."

An estimated 90 percent, or 31.4 million, of this year's anticipated travelers are expected to get around by car, according to the survey.

Gas prices in Connecticut have not spiked through June.

The state's anti-price-gouging law, which takes effect July 1, should help curb any skyrocketing gas prices for drivers if hurricanes and storms hamper production this year, said Michael Fox of the Gasoline and Automotive Service Dealers of America.

The average price of a regular gallon of gasoline in the Stamford area is $2.90, down eight cents from a month ago, but eight cents higher than at the same time last year, according to the AAA Fuel Gauge Report.

Inventories have remained high, Fox said.

"I think with the BP mess, everybody thought prices might skyrocket, but inventory levels are very high," Fox said. "It appears that will be an isolated problem, but the $20 million question will be what kind of storms will there be and their impact."

Metro-North Railroad expects normal ridership to double or triple on Friday afternoon and is offering 15 additional getaway trains from Grand Central Terminal from noon to 4 p.m. in anticipation of fewer customers in the late afternoon, spokesman Dan Brucker said.

The railroad projects an additional 5,000 passengers will take the train to Manhattan for the annual Macy's fireworks; it will run four additional late night trains out of Grand Central -- two on the Harlem and two on the New Haven line -- to accommodate the revelers, Brucker said.

Ed Deak, a professor of economics at Fairfield University, said he believes good economic news about jobs and an improved but wobbly economy is enabling Americans to justify spending a bit more on fun and relaxation, though current airfares are more than most people can afford.

"Taking their vacation at home wears thin very quickly, and people like to pick up and go, even if it is just to another town to see a relative or attend a barbecue," Deak said. "But there are still a lot of people out of work, and hopping on a plane is still a little out of reach of many people."