Turnpike traffic approaching pre-pandemic levels

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If you sense there’s more traffic on the Kansas Turnpike, you’d be right.

But it’s still not where it was before the pandemic swept into the state and the 236-mile highway network saw traffic drop by a little more than half in a single month.

As government restrictions were lifted and the public started moving about more – even with the resurgence of COVID-19 – traffic slowly started returning to normal levels but is still not quite to where it was in 2019.

“We’re definitely seeing a positive trend,” said Steve Hewitt, the CEO for the Kansas Turnpike Authority.

“Pending any shutdowns or issues with the pandemic that would close things down again, I feel like we’ll get much closer to pre-pandemic numbers,” Hewitt said.

The Turnpike finished fiscal year 2021 at the end of June with about 33.5 million cars and trucks using the system, down about 1.2 million vehicles from 2020 and about 5.4 million from 2019 before the pandemic hit.

Traffic late this summer was better than last year – when the pandemic was still in its earliest stages – but still worse than 2019 when traffic levels were more routine.

For example, traffic on the turnpike is down by about 318,000 vehicles, or 5%, for July and August of this year compared to 2019.

The traffic numbers have implications for the state because it generates millions of dollars that pay for the highway system.

Hewitt estimated that the pandemic cost the Turnpike about $20 million from a combination of lost revenue and dipping into reserves to fill budget holes.

Hewitt said the agency had to furlough about 70% its roughly 350 employees during the pandemic, cut back its operations budget and delay projects.

“We had to make drastic adjustments, especially in the first few months,” Hewitt said.

“We tried to find as much savings as possible because traffic virtually stopped,” he said.

The revenue picture for fiscal year 2021 has improved somewhat with the KTA seeing a $2 million increase over 2020 but still $9.3 million off from 2019.

“Now we’re back to normal,” he said. “We’re off slightly in traffic still, but it feels very normal.”