photo: San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency employees turn an empty cable car in San Francisco on March 4.
San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency employees turn an empty cable car in San Francisco on March 4. The city has taken advantage of the commuting and tourism lull to complete transportation-related construction projects. David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

With cities in lockdown and workplaces closed, the big drop in traffic and transit riders allows road repair and construction projects to rush forward.

Eerie drone footage, dispersed block parties, unobstructed wildlife wanderings: The empty streets of the coronavirus era have given rise to all manner of creative applications. They’re also being put to practical use, with several U.S. cities seizing the opportunity to accelerate improvements to their transportation systems.

Los Angeles, where traffic levels have dropped 60% under shelter-in-place orders, may be the most prominent example. On March 31, the Beverly Hills City Council voted to approve a full temporary closure of a segment of Wilshire Boulevard, allowing the L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority to expedite pile installation and the construction of a new concrete street deck on phase two of the extension of the L.A. Metro’s Purple Line into the heart of Beverly Hills.

For years, the $2.4 billion subway plan, which is slated for completion in 2025, has faced fierce opposition from residents in the tony community. While multiple lawsuits against L.A. Metro are still ongoing, Beverly Hills leaders appear to have for the moment set aside their differences out of interest in the local economy. The decision “will help us minimize future construction impacts to local businesses as they struggle to overcome the impacts of the Covid-19 health crisis,” Dave Sotero, the communications manager for L.A. Metro, said in a statement.

Reno is also taking advantage of the zeroed-out traffic to hasten work on the Virginia Street Bus RAPID Transit Extension Project, an $87 million plan to improve pedestrian access in the city’s core and extend an express bus line to the local University of Nevada campus. That involves shutting down and completely overhauling a half-mile stretch of of Virginia Street through the heart of the city. The closure extends through Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak’s shelter-in-place order, which currently lasts through the end of April.

Shutting down the street all at once, rather than in segments over time, should mean construction on the midtown segment will wrap up about six weeks earlier than planned, says Jeff Wilbrecht, a project manager at the Regional Transportation Commission of Washoe County. His back-of-the-envelope estimate is that the time savings could reduce 25% to 30% of the cost of this phase of the project. Right now, sidewalks and rerouted bus lines are still accessible, but Virginia Street “feels like the Wild West, with how barren and vacant and torn to dirt it is,” Wilbrecht said.

Road, highway, and bridge construction is likewise pressing forward in Indiana, Florida, New Jersey, and across the Washington, D.C., region.

Idled transit lines around the U.S. are getting a boost, too. In San Francisco, a labor shortage and massive ridership drop has forced the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency to suspend transit service to all but just 17 “core” bus lines. The upside: Track maintenance on Muni rail lines can now happen virtually unimpeded. Bay Area Rapid Transit, which moved closing time from midnight to 9 p.m. after losing 92% of its passengers, is spending the extra time and staff replacing rails and cables, shoring up leaky tunnels, and sprucing up stations. “That’s all work that had been on a certain timeline, and now we can put labor into it quicker,” said Alicia Trost, the chief communications officer for BART, on a recent podcast.  

What about the risks to all the workers performing this construction and repair work? Communications staff for all agencies said that these jobs are considered “essential” under their respective shelter-in-place orders, and workers are maintaining social distancing protocols to the greatest extent possible. Still, as a recent SFMTA video shows, track maintenance can be cozy work. In Oregon, where Governor Kate Brown’s shelter-in-place orders allow for all construction to continue, workers have expressed concern for their health as their duties continue apace. One New York-based contractor recently took to the industry publication Construction Dive to call for all non-essential construction to halt.  “Forget the schedule, forget liquidated damages, forget profits,” wrote James Lang, a superintendent for a central New York State contracting firm. “These are people’s lives.”

The question also remains as to whether the infrastructure that is being built will draw as many travelers as previously expected. For example, some transportation experts speculate that lingering fears of crowding and infection will discourage the use of public transit after the pandemic ends, accelerating the pre-coronavirus downward trend in ridership. Some agencies investing in their systems now say they hope that providing better service will help entice riders back to trains and buses after the lockdowns lift and the economy reawakens.

“Hopefully we’ll see a return in ridership,” said Michael Moreno, the public affairs manager at RTC of Washoe County. “Even more importantly, we’re hoping for an increase, because we’ll be serving a new segment of the population, with university faculty and staff.”

But funding for public infrastructure projects may soon dry up, especially for transit agencies reeling from the loss of farebox and sales tax revenue. In March, Congress allocated $25 billion to public transit agencies as part of its coronavirus aid package. Without further federal support, and with a possible long-term diminishment in transit’s appeal, agencies may not be able to continue to chase riders with the financial means to choose other modes, said Kari Watkins, a professor of civil & environmental engineering who specializes in public transit at Georgia Institute of Technology. “I’m not sure what the stomach will be for this type of stuff going forward.”

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