MassDOT official: Traffic back to 2019 levels, ‘adjustment period’ coming

BOSTON — Stadiums and ballparks are welcoming fans back at full capacity. Restaurants can seat guests indoors and outdoors with no minimum spacing requirement or maximum party size. And in yet another sign of the state’s progress after more than a year in a state of emergency, roadway congestion is once again crushing commuters across the region.

Traffic evaporated in the early days of the pandemic as many professional workers with the flexibility to do so shifted to remote work and schools closed their doors to the public. But now, Highway Administrator Jonathan Gulliver said Monday, transportation officials are “seeing a return to a lot of previous travel times.”

“Traffic, for all intents and purposes, is back to about 2019 levels on most roadways in Massachusetts at this point,” Gulliver said in a presentation to the Department of Transportation’s board.

That analysis came with a handful of caveats. Traffic on the Massachusetts Turnpike is still “running a little bit lower” than before COVID-19 hit, Gulliver said, particularly closer to Boston. Fewer motor vehicles are traveling through the tunnels to and from Logan International Airport than pre-pandemic.

“It’s been growing now at a pretty steady rate for the last month and a half really,” Gulliver said of the traffic.

Gulliver presented that data on Monday to the Department of Transportation Board. It shows a steep drop-off in traffic in March of 2020 when MA Gov. Charlie Baker used his executive authority to issue a stay-in-place order. Traffic dropped off by more than 50% right after that and has steadily increased nearly to pre-COVID numbers.

As has been the case for much of the COVID era, commuting patterns themselves remain shifted. Gulliver said Bay Staters appear to be taking shorter trips and traveling more frequently during midday. While morning and evening rush hours are still crowded, Gulliver said they do not last as long as they did before the pandemic.

“We think a lot of what’s going on is people with flexible schedules are making those short trips. They’re coming in mid-day and leaving a little early. And that means the volume is back,” Gulliver said.

So, while there is nearly the same amount of volume he said it is spread out over the day. And that, Gulliver said, means the normal early and later rush hours are still busy but do not last as long.

“It’s everybody’s best guess right now, but my hope is that it’s going to stay that way for some time,” Gulliver said.

He also believes that flexible schedules will be more in demand and allow drivers to get behind the wheel only when necessary. That will still make roads crowded but not as bad as pre-COVID levels.

“I think we’re in for a really major adjustment period that’s going to occur throughout the fall and early winter before things settle,” Gulliver said.

In 2019, the Boston area earned INRIX’s dubious designation of having the worst congestion in the country. Beacon Hill appeared poised for major debate on transportation policy shortly before COVID arrived and absorbed virtually all attention.

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