By Diane W. Morabito, PE, PTOE, Vice President of Traffic Engineering
Coronavirus and the Governor’s Stay-at-Home order have had a profound impact on traffic in Maine with both positive and negative outcomes. Traffic volumes on Maine roadways dropped dramatically from early March to early April. At that point, traffic volumes on Maine highways were less than 50 % of normal volumes. Since early April, volumes have rebounded somewhat week by week. The first week in May statewide traffic volumes were approximately 41 percent lower than normal.
This lessening of volumes and associated vehicle miles traveled has a direct negative impact on the Maine Department of Transportation’s budget, as much of their revenue is generated by the gas tax. Given this, the Department is reviewing its budget and will likely be cutting scheduled projects. Additionally, instructions have been given to designers to reduce costs on projects under design given the projected shortfalls.
On the opposite hand, lower volumes make the construction process easier and less expensive. For example, the Department is currently working on repairs to a stretch of I-295 in Portland. This work was originally planned as nighttime work since high volumes on 295 prohibit safe daytime lane closures. With the currently lower volumes, this work is now being accomplished during the day. And since daytime work is less expensive and goes faster than nighttime work, this is saving the Department monies but certainly not enough to offset revenue losses.
Private development projects will also likely be slowed by the coronavirus. The development process requires Traffic Impact Studies to be conducted to determine associated impacts and the need for any off-site mitigation. These studies rely upon traffic counts, typically turning movement counts, as the basis of the traffic analysis which cannot be conducted right now given the low volumes. And it is not just the low volumes that are prohibiting traffic counts, but also the changed traffic patterns with schools and colleges, bars and restaurants, retail malls and large non-essential office complexes all closed.
No one has a crystal ball to know when this pandemic will be over and when traffic volumes will rebound. It is possible that they may never rebound to original levels as working remotely may be the new normal.