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MassDOT needs to coordinate road work with summer vacation traffic

With the passing of the Fourth of July, the summer vacation season gets into full swing. So does the road-repair season. The two aren’t strictly related, but one has the potential to ruin the other. The state Department of Transportation has a formidable task in trying to repair a harsh winter’s worth of wear and tear on state highways. But it also has a responsibility to Massachusetts residents — and the millions of visitors to the state’s many vacation areas — to minimize any disruptions. A trip to Old Sturbridge Village with the grandkids becomes memorable for all the wrong reasons if it’s accompanied by an hour-long traffic backup.

Last Sunday night, the Mass. Pike was clogged for two hours due mainly to a serious accident in Palmer but also to four separate areas of lane closures on the eastbound side; MassDOT spokeswoman Cyndi Roy-Gonzalez explained that Sunday nights are usually the least-trafficked time on the Pike, so roadwork often takes place during those hours. But summer vacation season changes traffic patterns, and MassDOT needs to stay alert. The agency provides live updates on its web site, but its weekly traffic warnings aren’t as comprehensive. They should be as specific as possible in identifying areas of road work so drivers can change their plans in advance. If more drivers sought alternate routes, there would be fewer backups. As for the ongoing Fourth of July weekend, the state has postponed all repairs.

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Staying on top of shifting driving demands as the summer proceeds won’t be easy, but it should be a top priority. Much is at stake. Safety is a primary concern, as roadways become overcrowded and motorists drive on the shoulder and make illegal turns to avoid backups. So too is the success of the region’s tourism industry; unhappy motorists are less likely to come back.

Ultimately, the state holds many levers to control the problem beyond simply the ability to coordinate the repair schedule. Setting toll rates based on the volume of traffic would give drivers an incentive to plan their trips on less-trafficked hours. If the extent of road repairs is exacerbated by the pounding of heavy trucks, the state can consider new regulations to reduce the need for constant repaving.

MassDOT says it takes seriously its role in providing travelers with as much information as possible while striving to ensure that road work occurs mainly on off-peak hours. As millions of travelers take to the roads over the next two months, MassDOT will have its work cut out for it.

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