The number of cars traveling in and out of the state on the Maine Turnpike rose each weekend in May, increasing 53 percent during the month.

Though warming weather and reopened beaches appear to be attracting more visitors, overall traffic through the York tolls is still far below what it was a year ago.

Traffic on the Maine Turnpike slowed dramatically in March and April when government officials advised people to stay home and limit nonessential travel to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. Beaches and parks that were closed in southern Maine to help dissuade weekend and day visitors began reopening in May.

Mobile phone data and Maine Department of Transportation highway traffic counts also show people are moving around more within the state as additional sectors of the economy reopen.

The steady increase in Maine Turnpike traffic last month backs up anecdotal accounts from town officials in York County who report day-trippers have been coming to Maine to go to the beach and local businesses despite a 14-day quarantine mandate that has been in effect for out-of-state visitors. Gov. Janet Mills on Monday announced an alternative to the quarantine that will allow visitors to travel to Maine starting next month if they have recently tested negative for COVID-19.

Data from the Maine Turnpike Authority show the number of transactions at the York tolls went up each weekend, but traffic volume at the end of May was still 43 percent below the same weekend a year ago. The numbers do not show the origin or destination of the cars that pass through the York tollbooth, which is the southernmost toll plaza on the turnpike.

During the first weekend in May, there were 50,502 transactions at the York tolls from Friday to Sunday, a decrease of more than 56 percent from the previous year. By Memorial Day weekend – the traditional kick-off to the summer tourism season – the turnpike recorded more than 76,528 weekend transactions in York, a 52 percent increase from the beginning of the month but down more than 52 percent from the previous year.

York toll traffic jumped again during the last weekend in May, when 77,524 transactions were recorded, a 43 percent decrease from 2019.

Preliminary data for the first weekend in June indicate that upward trend is continuing with about 91,000 transactions in York last weekend. Even so, that is down 43 percent from almost 160,000 transactions the same weekend last year, said Erin Courtney, spokeswoman for the Maine Turnpike Authority.

Data from the Maine Department of Transportation also show that more cars are out on Maine roads than earlier this spring, but still far fewer than last year.

According to data collected from 10 traffic monitoring stations in York County, the number of cars on the road during the first three weeks of April was 50 percent lower than in 2019. Data collected between May 31 and June 6 show that traffic levels were only 26.2 percent lower than 2019 levels.

Compared to this same week last year, there were 36 percent fewer vehicles entering the state on I-95 in Kittery, according to the department.

Traffic statewide reached a low point in the first week of April, dropping to 48 percent of the traffic volume during the same week in 2019. It rose the first week in June to 72 percent of the traffic volume a year ago.

Unacast, which uses smartphone data to measure human mobility, also has reported a steady rise in travel within the state in recent weeks.

Unacast assigns a letter grade to states and counties based on their reduced mobility in compliance with stay-at-home orders during the pandemic. It gave Maine an overall B-minus in April.  meaning there had been a decrease in mobility of between 55 percent and 70 percent. Maine now has a D overall, and southern Maine counties have an F, meaning a less than 25 percent reduction in mobility from pre-pandemic days.

Concerns about people coming to Maine from virus hot spots led to a few tense confrontations between residents and visitors and Facebook posts outing vehicles with out-of-state plates. In beach towns near the southern border, officials took steps to dissuade visitors from away – including closing popular beaches and walking trails – and have grappled with what to tell seasonal and weekend homeowners who want to come to their Maine properties.

Wells Town Manager Jonathan Carter said he continues to fields inquiries from people who want to come to Maine to use the beaches for the day, but also hears from residents who want the town to enforce the quarantine.

Carter said it’s clear that more people have been coming to Wells from out of state, but the town has not tracked them or questioned if they have completed the quarantine. He has asked for guidance from Heather Johnson, commissioner of the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development, on what to do with out-of-state day-trippers to the beach.

“If you’re from the area, you know people are coming in all the time,” he said. “Look at the cars. The bulk of them are from Massachusetts.”

Peter Mills, the Maine Turnpike Authority’s executive director, said his analysis of Memorial Day traffic indicated that turnpike use was higher in the Greater Portland area – suggesting people were getting out and about, but still sticking close to home. And, he said, the numbers are still relatively low at the ends of the turnpike, suggesting no surge in the volume of out-of-staters coming into Maine or Mainers heading out, especially considering the good weather.

The drop in traffic means the highway’s overall revenue is down by about a third compared to last year. He said traffic was strong in January and February, before the pandemic hit and stay-at-home orders kept people off the road, with a sharp drop in toll collections.

Truck traffic helped offset some of the decrease in passenger traffic, and truckers pay higher tolls than those in passenger cars, Mills said.

“The trailers are sustaining us,” he said.

Staff Writers Reuben Schafir and Edward Murphy contributed to this story.

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