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Maine traffic rebounds faster than expected

Jennifer Brickett, Director of Planning for the Maine Department of Transportation, speaks to members of the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce at Auburn-Lewiston Municipal Airport last week. Brickett talked about the improved flow of traffic in Maine in recent weeks, and how the MDOT is dealing with loss of income during the COVID-19 pandemic. Chamber members sat in or beside their cars on the tarmac of the airport to remain socially-distanced during Brickett’s talk. (Tsukroff photo)

By Nathan Tsukroff

AUBURN – With Maine COVID-19 pandemic restrictions easing, traffic volume statewide has “rebounded quicker than we actually expected,” according to Jennifer Brickett, Director of the Bureau of Planning for the Maine Department of Transportation.

In March, when the first stay-at-home orders were issued by the state, traffic volume dropped to about the half the level from last year, Brickett said. Inbound traffic at airports fell to just a quarter of the numbers from 2019.

Last week, traffic volume statewide was only down 9.5% from the same week last year, “So this indicates a slow return to normal highway travel,” Brickett said. Airport traffic has been slower to recover, remaining down by about 65% from 2019 levels.

“We’re seeing other challenges,” with passenger train travel and other public transportation down by about 80%, she said.

Brickett spoke last week to members of the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce at their monthly meeting, which took place in one of the hangars at the Auburn-Lewiston Municipal Airport. Chamber members stayed at or near their cars on the tarmac in front of the hangar, or attended virtually over the internet.

The Maine Department of Transportation manages a multi-modal system of transportation, including roads, bridges, airports, water ports, freight rail, and public transportation, along with walking and cycling. The Bureau of Planning works on planning for systems that connect people to their destinations and moves freight throughout Maine, around the country, “and really, around the world,” Brickett said.

Speaking on a theme of “Making it to Market”, Brickett said that “at the Bureau, we understand that a well-functioning transportation system is really critical to economic development and quality of life.”. In order to plan for this system, the Bureau of Planning focusses on relationships with companies throughout Maine to determine their needs and plan for economic development opportunities that will help develop critical infrastructure for the state.

The Maine DOT is “really operating under what we’re calling Business Unusual,” with most of the office workers working from home. “In general, our whole system has been impacted by COVID-19,” she said.

“On a positive note, as the result of slower traffic and more competitive contractor pricing, we were actually able to add some projects this year,” Brickett said. “And we continue to deliver all of our planned work . . . which has really been a bright spot in this time, environment, and economy.”

However, with the lower number of vehicles on the roads, highway funding “has taken a hit” with revenues down about $40 million for the current fiscal year that runs through June 2021, Brickett said. Revenue for the following fiscal year is expected to be down by about $30 million, making this “the most sudden drop in highway funds revenue in memory.”

Aviation revenue is also expected to be down significantly with the loss of passenger traffic and aviation fuel taxes, she said.

The Maine DOT is working on a plan to address the funding shortfall and “was fortunate to get the July bond, which helps compensate for some our income loss,” Brickett said. The department will need additional funding, and the most likely options right now are federal funding and bonds.

The department is looking at ways to save money, perhaps by cutting back on planned work on less-traveled roadways, she said. “At the same time, we need to invest in areas that are redeveloping and where people are moving.”

Surrounding the airport are a number of trucking companies and railroad facilities. These businesses “are the backbone to our state’s economy. They enable the movement of millions of tons of freight every year, traveling by road, over railroad tracks and by airports,” Brickett said. While airport passenger travel is reduced, the airports themselves are critical for the transport of freight and perishable goods, such as seafood.

“This region is really a great example of a multi-model system that moves and transports goods, and supports the economy, both regionally, throughout the state, and the international markets,” she said.

 The Lewiston-Auburn area is close to interstate 95, which provides quick access to the Walmart distribution center, she said. The good highway system makes the area a “gateway to western Maine.”

The department also has an Industrial Rail Access Program that is focused on economic development and rail opportunities, and has worked with several businesses in the area over the years.

The Maine DOT recently started development of a three-year workplan for projects across the state.

Brickett oversees statewide planning for freight and passenger services, including aviation and transportation system analysis. She previously worked as the Maine DOT planner for southern Maine, and before that was with the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials in Washington, DC, where she worked on national transportation policy issues.

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