LI traffic plummets amid coronavirus outbreak

State agencies have confirmed what many Long Islanders have observed – since social distancing began, traffic is disappearing.

The state Transportation Department estimates rush hour traffic on Long Island state roads is down to as little as half of normal levels.

And compared to an average day last month at the RFK Bridge, Queens Midtown Tunnel and Hugh L. Carey Tunnel…

…rush hour traffic last week was already down 28%.

That’s
0
fewer cars per day.

And while that’s bad news for MTA toll revenue, it could be good news for the region’s air quality.

Here’s what you need to know about LI rush hour in the days of the coronavirus.

Traffic on Long Island and on the MTA bridge and tunnels linking it to Manhattan has evaporated in recent weeks as the state has ramped up social distancing orders to combat the new coronavirus.

Rush hour traffic on Long Island’s state roads has been chopped in half since commuters began working from home to prevent the spread of the virus, which has infected more than 5,000 people in Nassau and Suffolk counties, officials said. On the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge, the Queens Midtown Tunnel, and the Hugh L. Carey Tunnel — which normally carry tens of thousands of car commuters from points east into Manhattan every day — rush hour traffic has fallen by 28 percent, Metropolitan Transportation Authority data show.

The disappearing drivers reflect the profound impact of the pandemic on how Long Islanders move about their region, with effects that experts say are likely both good and bad. Long Island’s air quality, which often ranks among the worst in the state, may be improving as a result, experts said, but toll revenue important to the MTA’s budget is plummeting.

As the outbreak spreads wider over the island, the roads may empty even further.

“It’s 9/11-level stillness,” said Eric Alexander, director of the regional planning group Vision Long Island, of local traffic. “It’s just like a ghost town.”

Joseph Morrissey, a spokesman for the New York State Department of Transportation, said the department estimates rush hour traffic levels on Long Island state thoroughfares were “as much as 50% lower than a typical weekday.”

Data collected by the Transportation Department showed car traffic down 33% to 58% along stretches of the Long Island Expressway and the Northern and Southern State parkways on Monday compared to last year.

Data published by the MTA show a similar nose-dive in toll-paying drivers on the agency’s seven bridges and two tunnels, including the RFK Bridge, the Queens Midtown Tunnel and the Hugh L. Carey Tunnel, which serve as crucial links for Long Island drivers to Manhattan.

During an average weekday in February, 153,100 cars paid tolls to cross the RFK Bridge and the two tunnels during the morning and evening rush hours. Last week, as the state ordered more and more nonessential workers to stay home, the number fell to 110,500, a 42,600-car plunge.

The numbers have fallen week by week. In the second week of March, 509,400 cars paid to pass through the Queens Midtown Tunnel. Last week it was 297,400.

They’ve even fallen by the day. Last Monday, 32,400 cars streamed over the RFK Bridge into Manhattan during the morning rush. By Friday, only 23,000 made that trip — nearly 10,000 fewer.

The dip in drivers represents a serious loss of toll income for the MTA, the agency said.

“MTA Bridges and Tunnels has lost tens of millions of dollars in revenue since the COVID-19 pandemic began,” agency spokeswoman Meredith Daniels said. “That is why along with our revenue loss on subways, buses, and the commuter rails, we have advocated strongly to congressional leaders for critical federal funds to protect the MTA from this national crisis.”

In a letter to the New York Congressional Delegation last week, MTA chairman Patrick Foye requested more than $4 billion in federal aid for the agency, writing that “MTA revenue has plummeted” during the pandemic as ridership on mass transit has declined.

At an MTA board meeting Wednesday, Foye also said there were “significant declines in vehicle crossings at our bridges and tunnels.” Those crossings typically bring the MTA more than $2 billion in revenue annually — money that Foye said subsidizes mass transit.

“It’s precipitating a financial crisis for the MTA,” Jeff Zupan, a transportation planner at the Regional Plan Association, said of the pandemic.

Zupan said global events have triggered large traffic drops in the past, such as the oil crisis of the 1970s. But no decline that he could recall has been this steep, he said.

“Not to this extent,” he said. “Traffic is way down.”

Meanwhile, the reduction in traffic could bode well for Long Island’s air quality, according to Kevin Stewart, director of environmental health, advocacy and public policy for the American Lung Association.

“Less traffic on roads in major metro areas definitely has an impact,” he said. It’s “perfectly plausible” that air quality on Long Island has improved as a result.

Factors including weather and industrial activity make it hard to attribute cleaner air to less traffic on any given day or week, experts said. But Stewart noted air quality improved when driving declined during the Great Recession in 2008 and when limits were put on traffic before Olympic celebrations in Atlanta and Beijing.

While there are proven health benefits to less air pollution, however, they would be hugely outweighed by the damage wreaked by the coronavirus, Stewart said.

“We’re not rooting for this in any respect,” he said.

Steve Flint, director of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s Division of Air Resources, said the agency has observed as much as 50% drops in pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide over New York City in recent days. The DEC did not provide figures to Newsday on any improvements to Long Island’s air quality over the same period.

For Long Islanders who’ve continued to drive into the city for work, the deserted roads have been a bright spot in an otherwise dark period.

“Night and day,” is how Owen Watstein, a decadelong car commuter into Manhattan from South Merrick, described the change.

Watstein, a financial adviser, began working from home Monday. Before that, however, the drive home over the RFK Bridge had shrunk from two hours to 40 minutes.

“It’s nice, but I’m not celebrating it,” Watstein said last week, noting the public health crisis to credit for his easier commute. “It’s a perk and a benefit that I’d rather not have.”

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