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Why traffic is rising again on Connecticut's highways and what is being done about it

Journal Inquirer - 6/16/2024

Jun. 16—At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people in Connecticut and beyond surmised about what the "new normal" would look like once the global public health crisis was brought under control. On the state's roads, the amount of activity in the new era has turned out to be similar to the usage in the pre-pandemic period.

In many parts of the state, highway traffic levels are nearly as high or slightly higher than they were five years ago, according to a CT Insider review of state Department of Transportation (DOT) data. The rebound reflects the state's economic recovery since the beginning of the pandemic. State officials said that the roads are being maintained to meet the resurgent demand. But in the long term, they want to reduce traffic — in large part by expanding access to public transportation.

"There are still a lot of vehicles on the roadways. We try to plan for that," Josh Morgan, DOT's director of communications, said in an interview. "But we also want to mitigate some of the effects. And part of that is investing in public transit options that we have here in the state."

Traffic rises again on state's highways

In 2020, pandemic-sparked shutdowns, work-from-home directives and record job losses in the state precipitated a plunge in traffic on the Merritt Parkway and Interstate 95.

For instance, between Exits 47 and 48 of the Merritt, in Trumbull, annual average daily traffic (AADT) decreased 23 percent from 2019, to 61,067 vehicles, according to DOT data. Between Exits 59 and 60 of the Merritt, in Hamden, AADT decreased 22 percent to 61,007. Between Exits 13 and 14 of I-95, in Norwalk, AADT dipped 13 percent to 127,617. Between Exits 54 and 55 of I-95, in Branford, AADT fell 21 percent to 70,579.

Since 2020, traffic levels have bounced back. Last year, AADT between Exits 47 and 48 of the Merritt totaled 79,370, 0.25 percent higher than the 2019 level. Between Exits 59 and 60 of the Merritt, AADT last year totaled 76,963, 1.5 percent below the 2019 level. Between Exits 13 and 14 of I-95, AADT reached 148,693 in 2022, 1 percent higher than in 2019. (2023 data for that section was not available.) Between Exits 54 and 55 of I-95, AADT last year totaled 84,846, down 4 percent from 2019.

The state's economic recovery has fueled the resurgence in driving. In January 2024, there were as many jobs in the state as there were at the beginning of 2020. In addition, the roll-out of COVID-19 vaccines has helped many people regain their comfort with going out to eat, shop and attend games, concerts and other events. An uptick in the state's population since the beginning of the pandemic has also created more activity.

"If you have more economic activity and more industry, that will likely mean more trucks on the road. And if you have more people, that is going to mean more cars on the road," Ari Perez, associate professor of civil engineering at Quinnipiac University, said in an interview. "All of those feed into the traffic levels."

At the same time, those who are still working from home at least some of the time still might be affecting traffic because many of them now favor commuting in the middle of the week when they do go into their offices. Some of them might also be using local roads near their homes more frequently on weekdays.

"Commuting patterns are different," Morgan said. "There could be more vehicles out on some of those community roads in a town or city during lunch hour than maybe there were pre-pandemic."

State Sen. Christine Cohen, D-Guilford, the Senate chairwoman of the General Assembly's Transportation Committee, expressed confidence that there was enough state and federal funding for roadway maintenance to handle the increasing demand.

"Overall, I think DOT has really been doing a tremendous job of leveraging unprecedented funds from the federal government and putting that money to the work for the people of Connecticut," Cohen said in an interview. "We're seeing incredible improvements, particularly along the I-95 corridor, including the East Lyme interchange and the Gold Star Bridge."

The road ahead

While the traffic comeback shows the state's economic recovery, it also brings a number of downsides.

Not only do drivers have to contend with more congestion, but they also have to take into account a growing amount of speeding, according to DOT officials.

"People are impatient. People are aggressive... And people are driving, like, just absolutely way too fast," Morgan said. "Those folks who were going 75 (miles per hour) are now going 85. Everything has just gotten faster, which means if there's a crash, it's more likely someone's going to die."

In the long term, more traffic complicates the state's efforts to tackle climate change.

"Emissions increased from 2020, and based on preliminary data, they increased again in 2022. Transportation remains the top emitter in the state and has not decreased significantly from 1990 levels," said part of a report released in April by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

Increased electric-vehicle usage figures among the proposals for cutting emissions advanced by Gov. Ned Lamont's administration and many of his fellow Democrats in the state legislature. For now, the still-small percentage of people driving EVs will not add much strain to the roads. But as EV adoption rises in the coming years, transportation officials will have to factor their impact into roadway maintenance because EVs generally weigh more than gas-powered vehicles.

Regardless of the types of vehicles that people are using, transportation officials such as Morgan acknowledge that a drastic reduction in traffic in the near future is unrealistic. But they are aiming to mitigate traffic in the long term through a number of initiatives, particularly through expanded access to public transportation. Among key initiatives, DOT has been significantly increasing bus service in several parts of the state through an allocation of more than $18 million in the current two-year state budget.

On the rail lines, a station at the Merritt 7 office complex in Norwalk opened last year. Next year, a station is scheduled to open in Windsor Locks, where Bradley International Airport is located. Also next year, construction is scheduled to start on a station in Enfield.

"Single-occupant vehicles take up a lot of space, produce a ton of emissions and do a lot of tear and wear on our roadways," Morgan said. "We're trying to figure out how we can make public transportation more convenient and accessible."

Cohen takes a similar position.

"It's incumbent upon us to be thinking outside the box about how to reduce traffic congestion," Cohen said. "While we need roadway improvements and absolutely should be leveraging federal funds, as we're doing, I think the bottom line is that we need to invest more in public transportation and really encourage its use."

At the same time, expanded access to public transportation would support plans to tackle the state's longstanding housing shortage, particularly since new residential development is often located near transit hubs.

"More public transportation is a good and necessary thing," Perez said. "But it's not just about building train lines and bus stations. It's about changing our way of thinking so we are able to design our cities and infrastructure in a way that they support public transportation."


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