On the road again

More travel anticipated on U.S. 20 in 2021

-Messenger photo by Chad Thompson
Traffic moves east on U.S. Highway 20 on a clear and crisp Friday afternoon. Travel experts are anticipating more road trips in 2021.

The fact that traffic volumes decreased along U.S. Highway 20 and all other main Iowa roads in 2020 isn’t necessarily a surprise considering more people have stayed home throughout the COVID-19 pandemic than in a typical year. But prior to the pandemic, traffic was up along the four-lane thoroughfare that spans the Hawkeye State from Dubuque to Sioux City, according to automatic traffic recorder reports collected by the Iowa Department of Transportation.

More vehicles traveled along U.S. Highway 20 near Rockwell City in every month of the year in 2019 compared to those same months in 2018. In August 2019, an average of 8,635 vehicles zoomed past the automatic recorder per day, which was the highest average on that stretch of road over the course of the past eight years.

Then, the pandemic hit in the spring of 2020, resulting in huge decreases in travel. Traffic on Iowa roads was down between 11% and 55% from March through October on all roads, including interstate, highway, secondary roads and city streets. The pandemic resulted in $415 billion in cumulative losses for the U.S. travel economy from March 2020 to October 2020, according to Travel Federation of Iowa.

But Shirley Phillips, of Sac City, former president of the U.S. 20 Corridor Association, predicts traffic counts to rise again in 2021.

She said travel researchers are anticipating more road trips during 2021.

-Messenger photo by Chad Thompson A red Chevrolet pickup truck travels west on U.S. Highway 20 Friday afternoon. Traffic counts on this highway and all others decreased in 2020, but travel experts are anticipating more people to hit the road in 2021.

“We expect more people to travel by car and Highway 20 certainly helps with that,” Phillips said. “A lot of people are looking for open spaces, outdoor recreation. Camping, trails, that kind of thing.”

For more than a half-century, residents in this part of Iowa worked to promote the conversion of U.S. Highway 20 into four lanes. The massive undertaking was finally completed in the fall of 2018. The milestone was celebrated with a ceremony and ribbon cutting on Oct. 19 of that year.

The completed highway has an impact that spans the country. U.S. Highway 20 begins in Boston, Massachusetts, on the Atlantic Coast and ends in Newport, Oregon, on the Pacific Coast.

Phillips said travel researchers believe more people will be taking road trips in 2021.

“They are telling us the trends in travel will be mostly road trips, so I think that’s what we are looking for,” Phillips said. “Certainly South Dakota and Wyoming are partnering to get more traffic so that has to come through Iowa somehow. Camping, RVing, road trips are what’s going to happen in 2021.”

Wyoming and South Dakota are promoting a Black to Yellow campaign that takes travelers from South Dakota’s Black Hills to Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming.

Phillips is optimistic that more people will soon hit the road.

“Naturally, traffic will pick up when the whole thing (COVID-19) is done,” she said.

Travel by the numbers:

• Daily vehicle count on U.S./Iowa highways decreased by 15% from March 13, 2020 to Jan. 14.

• Tourism generates over $9 billion in Iowa.

• From March to Oct. 10, 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in over $415 billion in cumulative losses for the U.S. travel economy.

• An average of 5,183 vehicles per day traveled U.S. Highway 20 near Rockwell City in January 2019. In 2018, that number was 4,843. Near Lawton, that number was 11,091 in January 2019, up from 10,250 in 2018.

Sources: Iowa Department of Transportation, Travel Federation of Iowa


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