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Fewer people are out on Missouri's roads amid stay-at-home orders, and one side effect is that contractors have space to work on some highway construction projects more quickly.
Traffic was down 40 percent statewide and about the same in Jefferson City last week.
That's allowed contractors to move projects planned as night work into the daylight, which is safer and faster, Missouri Department of Transportation Director Patrick McKenna said during Gov. Mike Parson's daily briefing Thursday.
Most highway projects are bid out to contractors, who are required to do some projects at night to avoid heavy daytime traffic, MoDOT Central District Engineer Mike Schupp said. Now that there is much less traffic, some of those projects can be done during the day.
Crews were set to work at night to finish up rehabilitations of six bridges on U.S. 63 between Columbia and Jefferson City that they started doing the bulk of last year, Schupp said.
They were able to get that done during the day and are able to work quicker on the U.S. 63 bridge over Cedar Creek, which has one lane closed for construction and is the last of the seven bridges MoDOT is having repaired on that stretch of highway.
"We're really not seeing near the traffic volumes, so we're not seeing backups whatsoever," Schupp said. "It's encouraging that we can do those jobs during the day."
Not all work has been moved to the daytime.
Work on Interstate 44 has been split into day and night. Crews can work on ramps during the day, but paving of the main highway is still restricted to nighttime because trucks are still using it to haul freight, and truck traffic can fluctuate a lot there, Schupp said.
MoDOT has told contractors and suppliers they have to follow guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19, like wearing gloves and masks and keeping a 6-foot distance between people, Schupp said.
While a decline in traffic has given contractors room to work on the highways, it also shows how much Missouri's economy has slowed. Businesses have been forced to close indefinitely, leaving many Missourians without work or income. More people have applied for unemployment insurance in the past three weeks than in all of 2019.
The primary goal of following the guidelines is to protect workers, but it also signals to those who aren't able to work right now that the state is taking seriously its responsibility to prevent the spread of COVID-19 as its contractors continue to repair roads and bridges.
"There are people who aren't able to work, and they're watching to make sure we're following the guidelines like we need to be," Schupp said.
Along with the safety concerns of working during a pandemic are the safety concerns of working alongside a highway.
While working during daylight with less traffic should be safer, some people are taking advantage of the relatively empty roads to speed, putting themselves and roadside workers at risk.
A recent test on a rural section of Interstate 70 showed twice as many people were speeding at more than 80 mph as there were at the same time last year, McKenna said.
Inattentive drivers have continued to be a problem as well, with three vehicles running into attenuators on MoDOT trucks at active work sites in the St. Louis area within two days last week. One crash injured a MoDOT employee who had to be taken to the hospital, Schupp said.
"I don't know what the average is, but obviously three in a week is a lot," Schupp said. "We need those people who are driving down the road to pay attention, whether it's day or night."