Car and trucks travel on the Maine Turnpike near exit 48 in Portland. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Traffic on the Maine Turnpike will decline more than 14 percent over the Thanksgiving holiday this year, as public health authorities urge Mainers to avoid large holiday gatherings and unnecessary travel amid an unprecedented surge of new COVID-19 cases.

The Maine Turnpike Authority expects that the number of toll transactions on the 109-mile highway will drop below 1 million, to 912,478, from Nov. 25 to Nov. 29 this year. A year ago, Maine tolls recorded 1,062,813 over the Wednesday-to-Sunday Thanksgiving holiday period, Nov. 27 to Dec. 1.

The expectations for less holiday travel come as Gov. Janet Mills last week urged Mainers to avoid unnecessary trips and limit in-person gatherings, calling the Thanksgiving holiday “a crucial test” in terms of determining COVID-19’s trajectory in the state. The virus has been on an upward trend since the beginning of November, with many days setting new records for numbers of new cases. Much of the transmission has been driven by small, indoor gatherings as colder weather has driven people inside.

“Many people need to ask themselves, do I have to take this trip?” Mills said. “If the answer is honestly no, don’t do it.”

Across New England, train, bus and rail travel will see the sharpest drop, declining 77 percent since last year, according to AAA. Air travel in the region is expected to dip 47 percent. The automobile organization expects road travel in New England to decline by just 2.9 percent compared with last year, with 2.07 million people expected to travel by car during the holiday.

The decline in travel on the Maine Turnpike would not be unique to the holiday weekend this year, as the coronavirus pandemic has depressed travel since it began in March. August, typically the busiest month on the turnpike, saw 21.67 percent less traffic this year than last year.

Turnpike traffic had been steadily increasing at about five percent per year before COVID-19 hit, according to Erin Courtney, public outreach manager for the Maine Turnpike Authority.

“Given what’s happened all year I don’t think it’s surprising that we’re expecting a 14 percent decrease in traffic,” she said. “It’s a significant decrease based on where we were headed, because year over year for the last seven years, turnpike traffic has grown.”

The agency expects to see about $30 million less in revenue this year than it would have otherwise, Courtney said.

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