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State traffic down 50% on average during the pandemic

As more people stay at home during the pandemic, traffic volumes on state highways have dropped significantly to an average of 50%, and even lower in areas of southeastern Connecticut.

Fewer cars on the roads has led to a host of impacts for the state’s transportation system. Crews are able to work more efficiently on construction projects. But it also means fewer gas tax dollars for the Special Transportation Fund.

The state Department of Transportation also is reporting an uptick in speeding on highways and is urging drivers to maintain safe speeds.

Traffic lower starting in mid-March

DOT Spokesman Kevin Nursick said the department started to see a noticeable decrease in traffic starting March 13, with volumes continuing to drop and then holding steady at a 50% decrease on average.

An analysis by MS2, a software development and data management firm for transportation agencies, calculates "the daily traffic volume change as compared to the same day of week in the same month for the most recent year that data is available." State traffic was down about 38% on Saturday, April 25, 2020, compared to Saturday, April 27, 2019, and about 61% on Sunday, April 26, 2020, compared to April 28, 2019, according to MS2. On Monday, April 27, 2020, traffic dropped about 48% compared to Monday, April 29, 2019.

Nationally, traffic was down about 36% on Saturday, April 25, 2020; about 37% on Sunday, April 26; and about 32% on Monday, April 27, compared to last year.

A stretch of Interstate 95 in East Lyme and Route 2 in North Stonington, sites of two of the state’s 23 automated traffic counters, are seeing lower traffic volumes than the state average.

I-95 in East Lyme, which averaged 71,920 vehicles a day last year, had a traffic volume of 34,071 vehicles on Monday, April 20, and 24,576 vehicles on Sunday, April 19, according to DOT data.

East Lyme Police Chief Michael Finkelstein said there is a noticeable fluctuation in traffic volumes on roads in East Lyme. He said morning commutes are far less traveled, while volumes later in the day appear fairly normal.

Route 2 in North Stonington, which averaged 12,896 daily vehicles in 2019, saw 3,940 vehicles on Monday, April 20, and 3,501 vehicles on Sunday, April 19, the state data shows.

The overall lower volume on roads means a decline in revenue to the Special Transportation Fund.

During a news conference Friday, Gov. Ned Lamont said the Special Transportation Fund was projected to run out by July 1, 2021.

“We had hoped that given the gasoline fuel tax revenues, the Special Transportation Fund would at least stay solvent for another three or four years,” he said. “Right now, it looks like given the drastic cut in gasoline prices, the drastic cut in revenues coming into the Special Transportation Fund with our share of the gas tax, that Special Transportation Fund probably runs out — will eat up the reserve funds — by about July 1, of next year.”

Nursick said DOT is monitoring the impact of reduced gas tax dollars on its programs but has made no determinations yet.

Working more efficiently, monitoring supply chain

The reduced traffic volume also means DOT can expand the scope and duration of its work at a time when construction projects, from paving to bridge repairs, are popping up across the state after the April 1 start of construction season, Nursick said.

As a result of the massive drops in traffic, DOT has been able to work more efficiently by expanding lane closures and working for a longer time without impacting traffic, Nursick said. DOT typically avoids construction impacts during high-volume times, such as the morning and afternoon commutes.

“The opportunity is there, so we are going to use it to be as efficient and as productive as possible,” he said.

In the region, DOT is taking advantage of the lower traffic volumes as it works to replace the median guiderail on Interstate 395 in Montville and Norwich, a project scheduled to be completed in October.

But it’s too soon to say whether the increased productivity will mean this project and others will wrap up sooner, Nursick said.

If the pandemic causes any issues with the supply chain or workforce availability, that would affect DOT’s schedule.

“If there are interruptions with asphalt, if there are interruptions with structural steel, if there are interruptions with components that are fabricated off-site, out of state, for example, those are things that could impact jobs,” he said.

While DOT is monitoring the situation, he said, “As it stands right now, we don’t have any supply chain issues and not any noticeable workforce issues at this time.”

DOT has been in contact with contractors regarding best practices and steps to minimize the potential spread of the virus, including not having groups gather together for lunch, minimizing interpersonal proximity on sites, using masks and sanitizing equipment, he said.

DOT also is applying those same measures to its staff. Its maintenance staff is doing “split shifts” in which they work one week as usual and then spend a week remotely addressing training requirements, he said. A large percentage of the DOT’s other staff is telecommuting and still completing work on time, he said.

Speeding an issue

But with the lower traffic on the road, DOT also is seeing an uptick in speeding and is urging drivers to maintain a safe speed and be careful.

“We’ve seen substantial traffic volume reductions, but we have seen in our estimation a much higher percentage of reckless speeding drivers and that has become a real concern for us,” Nursick said. “It’s a safety concern for everybody on the roads, and it’s also a safety concern for our work crews out on the roads.”

Based on its analysis, the DOT has seen a doubling, or in some cases up to an eightfold increase, in the percentage of drivers traveling at or above 85 mph on highways. While crashes are down, there have been a disproportionately high number of “severe” crashes, he said.

And while safety is always a concern, Nursick said it's even more crucial now with more individuals and families out walking and biking during the pandemic. He said drivers need to be extra careful and look out, while pedestrians and cyclists also should follow safety tips, such as ensuring they are visible, he said.


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