MILWAUKEE COUNTY — If any silver lining can be had from all of the abrupt COVID-19 changes, the roads around the state will be better on the other side.
"We're seeing this decreased traffic, so it does present a good opportunity for projects to begin and modify different tasks to possibly get done sooner," Mark Kantola, Communications Manager for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, said.
Kantola says since the beginning of March, before Governor Tony Evers' Stay at Home order was implemented, passenger traffic is down 51 percent.
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"It's very telling that the governor's stay at home order is working," Kantola said. "It is an incredible amount of traffic taken off the highway system. I can never remember traffic volumes being this low other than when there is a weather event. [But] when there is a weather event, the roads are much more impacted. So with traffic volumes this low, it really does create the possibility of advancing work and keeping our workers safe."
"That's the silver lining for this whole thing," Terry McGowan, President and Business Manager of Operating Engineers for Local 139, said. "As frustrating as the safer at home restrictions are, when they do come out, a lot of the road work they would have otherwise been cursing about will be completed. I do believe there are going to be projects getting done a lot quicker with the decrease in traffic."
Due to high traffic areas on freeways, workers are usually relegated to working overnight. To be safe, road construction workers need to close off a shoulder or lane of traffic to do their work. Now, they can do that during the day without a severe interruption to traffic patterns. So working during the daylight also keeps them safer.
"With the decrease in traffic work zones, they are safer," Kantola said. "It's less cars going by and less chance of people distracted driving. That in itself lends to a safer work zone. It does present opportunity."
It's also being seen on a city level. Wauwatosa has two big projects it's working on. They are both on schedule to finish on time, if not a little earlier.
"Wauwatosa Avenue between Milwaukee and Garfield is expected to finish around late August to early September," Nick Deming, Construction Manager for the City of Wauwatosa, said. "Then over in our Swan Park neighborhood, that one wraps up in mid-October to early November."
For the Wauwatosa Avenue project, Deming says the entire road is closed to traffic isn't an issue for them. However, the stay at home order has decreased pedestrian traffic, so they too can continue working efficiently.
"Any time traffic is off the streets where you're working, it makes it safer for workers that are there and more productive for the workers out there doing the work," Deming said.
If they finish the project sooner, then life can get back to normal for the residents impacted by the road closure, both living on the street and those who use it as an arterial road in the city.
"People had to figure it out," Denning said. "There was a learning curve, but that's typical on any project that has that volume of traffic. There is some avoidance there with folks staying home and staying off the projects."