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April 22, 2020 9:30 AM, EDT

As Residents Stay Home, State DOT Work Presses On

Mississippi road work zoneMississippi Department of Transportation

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Despite the coronavirus pandemic, many state transportation construction programs are progressing on schedule and, in some cases, have exceeded timeline expectations.

State departments of transportation have taken advantage of reduced traffic volumes, brought on by dozens of statewide stay-at-home orders, to work on construction projects.

Clayton Burke, work zone engineer for the Iowa Department of Transportation, said the agency has found that less traffic has allowed contractors to work more hours during the day on stretches of road that typically are busy and would otherwise prompt them to operate at night.

Patrick McKenna, director of the Missouri Department of Transportation, told Transport Topics his agency has been able to work longer on more lanes than it normally would, particularly in urban areas.

The Maryland Transportation Authority recently completed repairs to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge more than a year ahead of schedule. The Florida Department of Transportation announced in early April that it has started to accelerate $2.1 billion worth of critical infrastructure projects.

Mississippi road work zone

Road work by Mississippi Department of Transportation

“For the most part, transportation construction is working,” said Richard Juliano, general counsel of the American Road and Transportation Builders Association. “A number of states are actually accelerating projects because traffic volume is down just about everywhere. It’s obviously a very difficult situation that everybody is in, but that’s one positive development we have seen in a number of states.”

Nathan Smith, vice president of government relations for the American Traffic Safety Services Association, pointed out that many tasks associated with contracting work, such as striping a road, involve personal space.

Nevertheless, many industry groups and transportation agencies have established safety procedures in response to COVID-19. Smith said some of ATSSA’s members have instituted practices such as designating certain fleet vehicles to certain crews. In the past, crew members might have jumped in the first available truck in the yard.

Other safety precautions include single-occupancy hotel rooms for crew members dispatched for overnight work and asking workers to report directly to job sites rather than coming into their offices to receive “marching orders.”

Bradley Sant, ARTBA’s senior vice president of safety and education, identified maintaining a buffer of 6 feet as a challenge for workers who need to share fleet vehicles on the way to job sites. He said some crews have installed plexiglass barriers in vehicles to separate the driver from the person in the back seat.

“The one thing that’s fun about the construction industry is that people learn how to do things in crazy environments,” Sant said.

April 20-24 is National Work Zone Awareness Week, an annual campaign supported by groups such as ATSSA, ARTBA, the Federal Highway Administration and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

Sant moderated a virtual panel discussion April 20 for an event ARTBA held to coincide with National Work Zone Awareness Week. Construction worker “struck-by” incidents result in 100 fatalities a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“The great thing is, [this] is by and large work that can be done easily within the guidelines of the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention],” Smith said. “It’s critical that it continues that way, if for no other reason to ensure that roads are open and safe for first responders, National Guardsmen and women and the trucking industry, ensuring that trucks can get from point A to point B safely and securely so that we all can enjoy the goods and medical equipment we need to get through this.”

The road ahead for future projects remains foggy. Fewer people on the road during the pandemic translates to fewer people bolstering revenue streams that support transportation projects.

AASHTO estimates there will be at least a 30% loss in state transportation revenues over the next 18 months. McKenna, who also is AASHTO’s president, described this figure as a “middle-of-the-road scenario.”

McKenna said MoDOT has started pulling the reins back on project lettings in anticipation that certain sources of revenue, such as fuel taxes, license and registration fees and sales taxes on motor vehicles, will be “taking a pretty significant haircut.”

AASHTO recently requested that Congress provide an immediate $49.95 billion in flexible federal funding for state transportation agencies to act as a financial backstop. Juliano said this funding needs to be coupled with a multiyear surface transportation reauthorization bill. (The Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act of 2015 expires Sept. 30.)

“This is really about a revenue backstop,” McKenna said. “We start to get very quickly into the notion where ‘I have to go out to buy 250,000 tons of salt pretty soon. How much of that do I buy? How much of that can I buy?’ These are the types of considerations that are going on at state DOTs across the country.”

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