AUBURN — In Maine, vehicle travel is down. Air travel is way down. Ditto for bus.
Against the backdrop of an airplane parked at the Auburn-Lewiston Municipal Airport on Thursday morning, Jennifer Brickett shared the latest stark travel statistics and said the state had nearly wrapped a study looking at where it needs to invest in aviation.
Brickett, director of planning for the Maine Department of Transportation, spoke to a sea of people sitting in their cars and watching online at the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce breakfast.
“Right now at the department, we are adapting — that seems to be a running theme of today,” she said. “We’re really operating under what we’re calling ‘business unusual’ — we have most of our office workers working from home, and in general our full system has been impacted by COVID-19.”
In March, when the pandemic hit, vehicle traffic dropped by about 50% of 2019 levels, she said. Air travel fell by more than 75%.
“Just last week, our traffic volume statewide was down about 9.5% for that same week in 2019, so this indicates a slow return to normal highway travel,” Brickett said. “Air travel has improved, but it’s still down by about 65% from 2019 levels, so returning to normal will take an extended period of time. Similarly, we’re seeing other challenges with passenger trail modes and transit which are down by more than 80%.”
With less travel, the state’s highway fund is projected to be down $40 million, or about 12%, this fiscal year and down $30 million for the next two years after.
“This is the deepest and most sudden drop in the highway fund revenue in memory,” she said. “On the aviation side, with lack of travel, aviation fuel tax revenues and other revenues from the multi-modal program are expected to be significantly down as well.”
DOT is working on a plan to address the shortfalls and, she said, due to the lighter traffic and competitive contractor pricing “we were actually able to add some projects this year and we’ve continued to deliver all of our planned work, that’s both capital, operational and administrative, which has really been a bright spot in this current environment and economy.
“It’s time to MacGyver,” Brickett added. “On some of our lower-priority, lower-volume corridors, we may need to consider some lighter treatments than we otherwise would have: Patching until normal treatment and light capital paving, at the same time, we need to invest in areas that are redeveloping and where people are moving. So we’re looking at investments that support the growth of villages, to support local economies and quality of life and attract new citizens.”
Airport funding for existing services appears stable, she said.
Maine is in the midst of developing a long-range aviation plan, this year taking an inventory of assets and needs, and for the next two years determining where best to make investments.
“This region is really a great example of a multi-modal system that moves and transports goods and supports the economy, both regionally throughout the state and to international markets,” Brickett said. “We have this airport, which is a regional airport and an important distribution point for UPS. It can serve business travelers through charter services. Both cities are accessible by I-95. You really have good access in all directions, making the region a real gateway to western Maine markets.”
Asked about bringing long talked about passenger rail service to Lewiston-Auburn, she said an initial study had been finished “and right now we’re discussing a partnership to do an economic evaluation of passenger rail to this area.”