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Is decreased traffic congestion here to stay?

Is decreased traffic congestion here to stay?

A lingering question stemming from the economic lockdown last year is whether prior traffic congestion levels will return, particularly in the central Puget Sound region. Some transportation analysts say that while traffic will eventually return to pre-pandemic levels, other trends won’t make a comeback. 

In 2020, Seattle metro passenger traffic at one point fell by 60 percent. Although freight volumes fell by 13 percent compared to pre-lockdown levels, it was quick to recover and for a while enjoyed greater mobility. In October the state Department of Transportation (WSDOT) projected that while gas tax revenue will continue to increase, total miles driven won’t reach original agency forecasts until 2038.

Prior to the economic lockdown, central Puget Sound had notoriously high levels of congestion that some state officials claimed to be “unsolvable,” though others have unveiled proposals to address the issue. One of the ways WSDOT has sought to manage it is through dynamic tolling on the high occupancy vehicle lanes for I-405, though some have questioned its effectiveness. 

The future of transportation has enormous implications for the state agency, which is already struggling to fund maintenance and preservation. But despite the massive shift toward remote working last year, the growth of corporate office buildings and workforce housing in downtown Bellevue indicates it’s not a significant long-term trend in the region. Traffic patterns could also affect a potential road usage charge (RUC) program some hope will eventually replace the state gas tax to fund state highway projects.

In its latest Global Traffic Scorecard, Kirkland-based Inrix noted Seattle experienced a 24-percent reduction in vehicle miles traveled, while Spokane had a 22-percent reduction.

Inrix Transportation Analyst Bob Pishue told the Washington State Transportation Commission at its July 20 meeting that while transit ridership levels remain extremely low, daily peak passenger vehicle miles traveled through Seattle metro are slowly returning to pre-pandemic levels. “What this shows was that the reemergence to Seattle is not just the same everywhere. Each city is reemerging differently.”

Traffic levels in the Seattle metro area remain below pre-pandemic levels, with a 30-percent reduction in trips through downtown Seattle in June, and a 19-percent decrease for downtown Bellevue. However, the report also found that traffic within a metro region’s suburban and rural areas returned faster than in downtown.

Pishue also noted that there is now a lot of traffic during off-peak hours and on weekends, which suggests a changing trend that’s likely to remain in place even after congestion gets back to pre-pandemic levels.

“As traffic comes back…it’s not the same traffic,” Inrix Public Sector Service Senior Director Ted Trepanier said. “Patterns have changed.”

TJ Martinell is a native Washingtonian and award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Bellevue, he’s been involved in the news industry since working at his high school newspaper.

His investigative reporting for various community newspapers in the Puget Sound region has been recognized by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society for Professional Journalists.

A graduate of Eastern Washington University, he has a B.A. in journalism and was the news editor of EWU’s student university newspaper.

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