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State DOTs Use Quarantine Time as Advantage for Projects

Tue April 14, 2020 - National Edition #8
Lori Lovely – CEG Correspondent

While some states have halted all non-emergency construction projects, Indiana has decided to take advantage of the lighter traffic to get some scheduled projects done more quickly and more safely.

A project already on tap will benefit from a drop in traffic numbers resulting from Gov. Eric Holcomb's stay-in-place order that was extended through the end of April in an effort to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines encouraging Americans to practice social distancing and avoid large gatherings have resulted in the cancellation or postponement of conventions, big events and sports, including the Indianapolis 500. The city that usually enjoys a busy spring of visitors now feels more like a ghost town.

INDOT and contractor partner Milestone Contractors decided to make the best use of this unusual interlude to accelerate planned road construction projects in the hope of completing work before restrictions are lifted and rescheduled events take place.

After reviewing ADT data that indicates a 40 percent drop in traffic in the area of construction from March 9 to March 31 (compared with data from the week before the stay-at-home order went into effect), the Indiana Department of Transportation announced the closure of Interstate 70 in both directions for 30 days to allow crews to repair and reconstruct eastbound and westbound lanes commencing east of Indianapolis from Mt. Comfort Road to State Road 9 in Hancock County that have been damaged after two years of harsh winter freeze-thaw cycles.

Full closure of the interstate will permit crews to work more safely, and is expected to reduce construction time as well as maximize the use of taxpayer dollars. INDOT closed I-70 eastbound from the North Split to I-465 on April 13. All lanes and ramps will remain closed for 30 days and are scheduled to reopen on May 13. I-70 westbound from I-465 to the North Split will close on April 23; all lanes and ramps will be closed for repair and are expected to reopen on May 23.

Some States Rushing Projects

Work-from-home and shelter-in-place mandates around the country have significantly reduced the amount of traffic. According to Forbes, some areas are experiencing as much as 50 percent less traffic.

With less traffic on the roads as a result of the Coronavirus, it seems like a good opportunity to speed up roadwork.

During a news interview, Jeanny Sharp, communications director of the Kansas DOT, said, "Certainly, as we look at the lower traffic counts, particularly in the metropolitan areas, we're reviewing the ability and the opportunity to possibly do more roadwork during this time."

Without heavy rush-hour traffic to contend with, Washington, D.C., construction crews no longer have work stoppages during the former busy times of the day. This is allowing them to complete projects faster. Due to drastic decreases in traffic, the eastbound Intercounty Connector between I-95 and Route 1 has been shut down while they work on the toll gantries.

Repaving of residential streets has been postponed, according to a DC DOT spokesperson, because people are staying home and parking along the streets. Instead, DDOT has shifted focus to the major roads, which have less than usual the amount of traffic.

Nearby in Maryland, the right lane of the westbound Bay Bridge reopened earlier than expected, due to lighter traffic during the repair project, which meant that the Maryland Transportation Authority no longer had to restrict work to weekends and off-peak hours.

Similarly, the Virginia Department of Transportation indicates that some contractors have been allowed to close lanes for roadwork during rush hour. In normal times, crews are allowed to close lanes only outside of peak times, but VDOT is currently considering requests to allow crews to keep roads closed and work during peak times on a case-by-case basis.

Other States Working as Usual

Road and bridge projects in Michigan will continue during the pandemic, although construction season won't swing into full gear until late April. Road workers are considered essential workers in the state, so as long as they practice social distancing measures and other methods of protecting themselves from the virus, work will proceed.

"Federal, state and local funds are committed to projects," MDOT spokesperson Jeff Cranson said in a statement. "Delaying them would complicate future construction schedules." The situation remains fluid, he added, and the state will waive penalties if there are project delays because workers feel uncomfortable working during the pandemic. "In cases where a contractor feels they cannot begin or continue work because of concerns about their workforce, supply chains or other things related to COVID-19, the delays will be excusable and damages will not be assessed."

He said contractors can move forward with state projects "when they feel their workers can do their work in a safe manner."

Crews are taking precautions, according to Denise Donohue, executive director of the County Road Association of Michigan. She told the Detroit Free Press that many local road commissions are mandating only one person per construction truck and making sure workers have only their own tools in their trucks.

It's a good time to do road projects because since Gov. Whitmer signed an executive order for people to stay at home on March 23, traffic volumes dropped by 45.7 percent, per MS2, an Ann Arbor-based technology company that tracks traffic volumes.

Meanwhile, she confirms that local crews will continue to do necessary maintenance such as fixing or replacing guard rails, filling dangerous potholes and tree trimming that needs to be done at this time of year to avoid the spread of diseases, such as oak wilt.

The Illinois Department of Transportation states it has "no plans to stop or suspend construction because of this health crisis." Despite Gov. JB Pritzker's stay-at-home order, construction of critical or strategic infrastructure is considered essential by the Department of Homeland Security, so IDOT expects to maintain a normal work schedule in an attempt to keep the construction season on schedule.

Just the Basics

The Arizona Department of Transportation will continue pavement repairs, road construction and improvement projects along the nearly 7,000 miles of state highways in its domain.

According to an ADOT statement, "Maintenance crews are repairing pavement and guardrails, removing rock fall and performing other work to keep highways operating safely."

Construction and improvement projects are moving forward as well, with no anticipated disruptions.

In addition, crews have implemented more stringent sanitary protocols, such as more frequent cleanings and regularly disinfecting frequently touched surfaces like door handles, sinks and faucets at rest areas, which Arizona DOT considers "especially important to commercial drivers who use truck parking there to get their required rest."

The Rhode Island Department of Transportation is continuing to provide essential services, such as road repair, debris removal, sweeping operations and pothole repair. RIDOT construction teams are still working to ensure that projects remain on time and on budget as much as possible.

The West Virginia Department of Transportation has implemented a plan to continue essential roadwork and highway emergency response while limiting the number of workers present to reduce Coronavirus exposure. Rest areas and welcome centers remain open. To further protect crews, transportation workers are divided into two groups and placed on opposite work schedules. While one group teleworks from home, the other handles roadwork and emergency response. Every two weeks, the groups switch.

In a statement, Jimmy Wriston, WVDOT deputy secretary, emphasized the importance of keeping the Division of Highways on the job.

"There is no way we could maintain our supply chains across the country without [them]," he said. "They clean up crashes, repair guard rails and take care of numerous other issues.

However, he assures the public that he's looking out for his crews too. "We're going to create space, wash our hands, make sure we're not congregating in places and take care of the highways by separating our workforce."

On Again, Off Again

In early March, Vermont issued a statement that work was expected to proceed on schedule — or possibly ahead of schedule, particularly as warm late-winter weather seemed to signal an early start for projects, moving the start of construction season from April 15 to March 23.

A few weeks later, the Agency of Transportation announced that it pushed back its road construction season because of the Coronavirus pandemic. Gov. Phil Scott issued a "Stay Home, Stay Safe" order, putting a stop to all construction across the state, with the exception of "construction necessary to maintain critical infrastructure."

Jeremy Reed, state construction engineer at VTrans, indicated in Vermont Business Magazine that only one state-supervised project was continuing: the emergency rehabilitation of a culvert on I-89 in Georgia. With statements from U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams hinting that federal social distancing guidelines could remain in effect into May, Reed anticipates additional delays to the start of road construction season, which includes a list of 56 projects from routine repaving to an extensive remake of I-89 Exit 16 in Colchester to fix one of the state's worst traffic bottlenecks.

On Hold

An American Road & Transportation Builders Association survey indicates that transportation project shutdowns are "relatively isolated and localized." Except in Pennsylvania, which halted work on March 16 in response to Gov. Tom Wolf's announcement suspending non-essential business activity and services throughout the Commonwealth to minimize COVID-19 exposure for PennDOT and private-sector employees, as well as the communities where they live and work.

While the normal highway and bridge construction program has paused as the Commonwealth follows the Governor's mandate, 61 emergency and critical highway and bridge projects will continue in order to ensure a reliable transportation system.

The emergency work addresses specific safety need criteria, such as landslide repairs, or critical bridge, tunnel and drainage repairs and work needed to eliminate roadway restrictions that could impede the ability for the movement of life sustaining goods and services.

"A safe and reliable transportation network is always of the utmost importance, but it becomes even more crucial in times of crisis," Acting PennDOT Secretary Yassmin Gramian said. "We need to ensure that work continues on these critical projects, and we are taking the proper precautions to help ensure the safety of both our employees and our partners in the industry."

PennDOT will implement cleanliness protocols for job sites and offices, social distancing guidelines, procedures to address employee sickness and safe handling of material deliveries.

The pandemic has prompted several states to suspend all non-essential activities and issue stay-at-home orders to help mitigate the spread of the virus. Washington State Department of Transportation temporarily suspended construction activity for two weeks on March 26. Similarly, Boston halted construction due to the COVID-19 outbreak, except for critical functions and emergency maintenance.

While closures and stay-at-home orders have benefits beyond reducing exposure to the virus, including less pollution and the ability for DOTs to work under safer conditions, this situation also results in fewer tolls and fines being collected, fewer parking fees and less fuel being used – meaning less tax collected for roadways. Unfortunately, because most of these funds pay for road maintenance, repair and expansion, it means some projects are being put on hiatus whether the DOTs want to or not. CEG

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