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Coronavirus restrictions drive down traffic

Navigating through Tamaqua on routes 309 and 209 used to require the patience of Job; today, not so much. Getting across the Thomas J. McCall Memorial Bridge on Route 443 at rush hour was a job all of its own; today, it’s pretty much a breeze.

Welcome to another consequence of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic - traffic on major roadways throughout the five-county Times News region is down significantly.

Motorists even have clear sailing on some of the legendary daily bottlenecks, such as the one on Route 22 near Airport Road in Northampton and Lehigh counties.

In some cases, non-truck traffic is down between 40 and 60% as stay-at-home orders, shuttered businesses and schools, and other pandemic-related factors have come together to produce a perfect storm of disruption and anxiety.

Pennsylvania Department of Transportation officials and local planners, who have been tracking this phenomenon, have found that truck traffic has remained relatively steady since the demand for groceries, online purchases and other goods for critical industries and businesses has spiked dramatically, but the number of other vehicles on our roads has “dropped off a cliff,” as one planner put it.

It is scant consolation to commuters who would factor in additional time to their daily trek to work under normal conditions. Now, most are happy that they even have a job during these perilous times when more than 22 million nationwide have filed for unemployment compensation, more than 1.3 million in Pennsylvania.

The situation is so unusual that some, but not all, insurance companies are giving their policyholders credits for at least several months because of the fewer miles traveled. State Farm is one of the latest to announce premium reductions of about 25% between March 30 and May 31.

Erie Insurance, which is headquartered in Pennsylvania, announced it is reducing rates for personal and commercial auto policies. The amounts are dependent on individual coverage.

Other reductions I have been able to confirm for major insurers are: Allstate, 15% for April and May; American Family Insurance, $50; Farmers, $25 for April; Geico, 15% on a six-month policy’; Liberty Mutual, 15% on two months’ premiums; Nationwide, $50; Progressive, 20% for April and May; Travelers, 15% for April and May; and USAA, 20% on two months’ premiums. AAA said it is looking into savings opportunities with its regulators.

Another casualty of the pandemic resulting from fewer miles traveled is state gasoline tax revenues. The reduction in this line item will affect not only highway and bridge construction projects but also a funding stream for the state police.

Last year, state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale blew the whistle on this diversion, noting that a PennDOT audit showed that $4.25 billion had gone from the state’s Motor License Fund to the state police since the 2012-13 fiscal year. Nearly 65% of the total state police budget is now coming from this source, according to DePasquale, who urged ending the practice because of its impact on the state’s infrastructure repairs.

The General Assembly capped the annual amount two years ago at $850 million a year, but that still means that nearly 20% of the revenues raised from the gasoline tax is being diverted, DePasquale said.

Pennsylvania has the second highest gasoline tax in the nation, next only to California. Between 2010 and this year, Pennsylvania’s gas tax has increased 85%, from $0.312 to the current $0.576 a gallon.

State officials haven’t predicted how much of a dollar hit less driving will have on this line item, but several predicted that it will be a “huge number.”

Another revenue stream that will drop significantly will be tolls from the Pennsylvania Turnpike (Interstate 476). Traffic on the Northeast Extension between Clarks Summit in Lackawanna County to the Mid-County interchange in Montgomery County is off more than 50%, officials report.

In addition, the turnpike is accepting just E-ZPass payment for the time being, meaning that motorists without E-ZPass accounts will be billed by mail after their licenses are read as they pass through the toll plazas. There is no question that payment from these motorists will be spotty and will require additional expenditures to ensure enforcement.

One bright spot: Less traffic has meant fewer police citations, down by as much as 85% on some key area highways.

By Bruce Frassinelli | tneditor@tnonline.com