Iowans road-tripping for the Fourth of July should expect pre-pandemic traffic levels and persistently high gas prices
Just in time for July Fourth, holiday traffic is back.
With the Fourth falling on a Sunday, setting up a three-day weekend for most Iowans, expect roadways to be as busy, if not busier, than they were before the COVID-19 pandemic, state officials say.
"We need to remind ourselves to drive like it's 2019," said Jeff Von Brown, manager of the modeling, forecasting and telemetrics team at the Iowa Department of Transportation. "With pent-up demand, and getting to do an event that we didn't quite get to do the same way as we would have chosen last year ... people should just be mindful of their travel because there will probably be more people."
Last year amid the coronavirus pandemic, traffic fell drastically. But by March of this year, it had largely returned to normal, Von Brown said.
He and his team analyze Iowa's 177 Continuous Count Sites to compare traffic year-to-year. The sensors are scattered across the state along highways, county roads and city streets, tallying every passing vehicle, which allows for daily and yearly comparisons.
Nationwide, AAA says travel also will likely recover to pre-pandemic levels, with more than 47.7 million Americans are expected to be on the road from July 1-5.
While Iowa has largely bounced back from 2020's dip in traffic, Von Brown said vehicles returned to county roads faster than to interstate highways and city streets. The reason?
"It could be due to a number of factors but one of them might be that there's no at-home delivery of groceries" in most rural areas, Von Brown said.
"Whether people feel safe or they have a certain view on the pandemic, there's certain things that just don't occur in rural Iowa, so people are still going to have to drive for necessities. We don't know for sure, but there were distinct patterns."
Something else that's returning to normal: the number of serious traffic accidents. State data show that through Thursday, there had been 144 traffic fatalities in the state this year. On the same date in 2019, there had been 149 deaths. By this time last year, the state had recorded just 113.
So there's normal traffic but what about gas prices?
What isn't back to normal is gas prices, which shot up during May's ransomware-caused shutdown of a major gas pipeline and have yet to decline substantially. In parts of the Des Moines metro, the price of unleaded remains near or above $3 a gallon.
According to AAA's gas-price monitoring website, the average price in the Des Moines metro on Friday was $2.956. A year ago, it was $1.996.
Though some central Iowa Casey's General Stores reported shortages of gas in June, Katie Petru, a spokesperson for Iowa's largest convenience store chain, said it is "optimistic" it will be able to keep up with fuel demand during the holiday weekend.
"It is important to understand there are many factors that impact availability, and people are resuming their summer travel and post-pandemic routines," Petru said in an email. "Casey’s is working hard to keep our (guests') tanks full as they are out and about enjoying the holiday weekend.”
Hannah Rodriguez covers retail for the Register. Reach her at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @HRodriguez15.