HAMPTON, N.H. — Travelers often use the same word to describe the record-setting traffic leaving Maine on a Sunday afternoon: Brutal.
More drivers this summer have been hitting the highways and heading for the less-crowded beaches and wide-open wilderness of northern New England. They are encouraged, traffic watchers say, by falling gas prices, a recovering economy, and a sunnier summer. That has translated into beach and mountain weekends bookended by bumper-to-bumper traffic, often doubling travel times for drivers who leave at the wrong hour.
More passenger and commercial vehicles rolled through Maine tolls in June and July since at least 2007, according to the Maine Turnpike Authority. Records show that the number of vehicles — as measured in toll transactions — driving on the Maine Turnpike has surpassed the amount before the recession hit in 2008.
The congestion is undermining a long-held belief that heading north to solitude is only a couple of hours, far easier to endure than the storied, endless traffic to and from Cape Cod and its oft-crowded beaches.
Travelers to Maine and New Hampshire say they see the proof in gridlock, particularly going up on Friday after work and coming back on Sunday afternoon.
After battling three hours of traffic last Sunday, Chris Bernier stopped to stretch her legs at the New Hampshire Liquor and Wine Outlet just off the Hampton toll exit on Interstate 95. She and her husband were 50 miles into their ride from Old Orchard Beach in Maine to their home in Unionville, Conn. They usually wait to stop in Chelmsford, but the dog had to eat and her husband needed to use the restroom.
"How long does it usually take us to get here, again?" she asked her husband as she grabbed dog food from the back of their station wagon.
The stop-and-go traffic had also sidelined Anthony Micalizzi, his wife, and their four kids on their descent from the White Mountains to Boxford, Mass. Sitting outside the state liquor store, Micalizzi said he had geared up for the dreadful commute. But nothing could prepare Gianna, his 8-year-old daughter, for the interminable grind.
"We saw the traffic, and it was like, 'Oh. My. God,' " she said.
Savvy travelers say they try to time their vacations to avoid the Friday and Sunday backups. But now, the gridlock can freeze up sections of highway for hours on any given sunny Saturday morning.
The traffic still boggles the mind of David Miller, who making his way from Tamworth, N.H., to Jamaica Plain on Sunday afternoon, mainly because he thought the EZ-Pass lanes installed at the Hampton tolls around five years ago had helped help ease congestion.
"The traffic was nothing other than the approach of the toll booth," he said. "It wasn't an accident, and it wasn't any construction. I don't get what this traffic is about."
But even if it feels as if it takes longer to go through the EZ-Pass lanes than the traditional cash toll booths, David Smith, the assistant administrator for New Hampshire's turnpike bureau, insists they have been a boon. The open tolls have helped them collect more toll revenue, and allowed drivers to go through quicker, he said.
Mary Maguire, the director of public and legislative affairs at AAA of Southern New England, said gas prices have been a major cause of the increase in traffic across the region, not just on the way to Maine and New Hampshire. This month, motorists have paid the lowest gas prices in 10 years, she said. It hasn't been out of the ordinary to see gas stations advertising for $2.50 a gallon or less this summer.
"It simply makes it a more reasonable proposition for people to jump behind the wheel," she said.
A summer of unusually fair weekend weather has also played a role in the jams, said Erin Courtney, with the Maine Turnpike Authority. Courtney said that on July Fourth, the authority logged the most transactions at its tolls for a holiday since it's been keeping track.
"If it looks like it's going to pour, people don't come," she said. "But for the most part, we have had great weekends."
Vacationers are not the only ones causing the traffic jams, Courtney said. The Maine Turnpike Authority has also seen an increase in commercial vehicles.
"If it were just passenger car traffic, we would attribute it only to lower prices of gas," she said. "But it's a good sign from the economy when there are commercial trucks."
Smith, with the New Hampshire turnpike agency, said that traffic volume tends to mimic economic trends. He pointed out that toll revenues dipped to their lowest point around 2009, when the economy had tanked.
But this summer, there were a total of 5.15 million vehicle transactions through the Hampton Beach tolls between June 29 and Aug. 23, he said, representing a 3.1 percent increase over the same period last year.
Travelers like Samuel Stoughton of East Longmeadow, Mass., have noticed. He and his wife, Elizabeth, said they never had to worry about traffic on the trip to and from New Hampshire.
"We could just think about the family and spend time with the family and leave whenever we were done," he said. "Now, we have to leave at specific times in order to avoid the worst of it."
Elizabeth Stoughton, who used to live in New Hampshire, said one recent traffic backup stretched a two-hour trip to five hours in a minivan filled with their three kids.
Their big mistake? Leaving at 3:30 p.m. on a Sunday.
"Don't ever do that," she warned.
Unfortunately, such advice didn't reach Britta Brydon, who lives in Maine. She left home with her husband and 10-year-old daughter, Chloe, almost exactly at 3:30 p.m. to head to the Ikea store in Stoughton, Mass.
Brydon has lived in Maine for about 12 years, but said she had never sat in traffic like Sunday's. The trip from Portland to the Hampton tolls took nearly two hours, instead of just one. And with nearly two more hours to go, the family had to stop right after the clearing the tolls for a bathroom break.
As they booked it to the rest stop, Brydon could think of only one word to describe the gridlock: "Brutal."