Traffic on the Maine Turnpike this year has grown at a pace that officials haven’t seen since before the Great Recession.
Traffic increased year-over-year for five consecutive months, from February to June, the first time that has happened since the end of 2006. Moreover, total traffic for the first half of 2014 was the highest in a decade, according to a report completed for the Maine Turnpike Authority by HNTB Corp., an engineering, consulting and construction management firm.
The authority monitors traffic so it can manage staffing at toll booths and track revenue trends, but the data is also one indicator of the state’s larger economy. In that regard, the increased traffic is in line with other national and local economic indicators – such as Maine’s falling unemployment rate, which was at 5.5 percent in June – that show the economy is growing steadily, said Charles Colgan, professor of public policy and management at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service.
“The first half of this year saw the first sustainably healthy six months we have seen in a long time,” said Colgan, who has done consulting work for the turnpike authority.
Traffic growth in June was particularly strong, a good omen for the state’s tourism industry. There were 5.6 million trips on the toll road that month, a jump of nearly 5 percent from June 2013. In all, vehicles traveled 110 million miles, an increase of nearly 4 percent over last June.
Traffic counts so far for July indicate that the upward trend has continued, said Doug Davidson, chief financial officer for the authority.
Not only is the economy improving, but people appear eager to travel after a particularly hard winter, said Peter Mills, the authority’s executive director and a former Republican legislator.
“People have been tied down for a long time. They are on the road now,” he said.
Commercial traffic also is up, in numbers the authority hasn’t seen in years, Davidson said.
For the first six months of the year, there were 3.5 million commercial truck trips on the road, an increase of 1.2 percent over a year ago, he said.
While the number of passenger vehicles on the 113-mile toll road rose for almost every section of the highway, the commercial traffic data shows a very different story.
The growth of commercial traffic was limited to the Portland area and York County, where the number of commercial truck trips during the first six months increased by 3.25 percent over last year. North of New Gloucester, however, the number of commercial truck trips declined 3.5 percent from a year ago.
Also, while total traffic volume is up, it is still down from 2007, the peak year for the turnpike. In June 2007, for example, vehicles traveled 117.5 million miles on the turnpike, compared with 110 million this June.
Adam Lee, chairman of Lee Auto Malls and a major contributor to Democratic candidates, said the increased traffic shows that more tourists are driving to Maine, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the overall economy is healthier.
“It’s an indication of the economy improving elsewhere,” Lee said. “They have more money, and they are coming to Maine.”