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Will the pandemic create a move back to the suburbs?

Rush hour traffic has been lighter than normal during the morning commute in recent months heading in and out of Seattle on I-5 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Karen Ducey/Getty Images)

We’re starting to get an understanding of just how much tax revenue the state is losing because of the pandemic. The latest numbers from the state Department of Transportation are staggering.

The pandemic has seen a cratering of traffic, not only on the roads, but on the ferries, at the Department of Licensing, and at the gas station. The state is coming up nearly $110 million short of its forecasts on the gas tax alone, and that’s just in the four months between February and May. Tolling revenues are expected to be down $107 million through next year. The ferries are losing nearly $10 million a month over projections.

Washington ferries to continue operating at half-capacity for summer 

Add it all up, and the Department of Transportation expects to take in $468 million fewer through next year than it thought it would. Through 2023, the losses are a shade under $700 million. This money goes to road improvements, maintenance, and projects that are desperately needed.

Roger Millar is the Secretary of Transportation for WSDOT. He told the Washington State Transportation Commission that what’s complicating matters is he doesn’t know when people are going to return to normal, if ever.

“It’s relatively easy to model a trend back to the way we behaved before the pandemic, but we are seeing a couple of things that we just don’t know right now,” Millar told the group.

The most important of those things is what the public is going to do. Will employees continue to telecommute? What will that look like? Will people only come in to the office one or two times a week? Will they stay in their cars? Will they return to transit?

Mark Hallenbeck, a University of Washington traffic engineer, described it this way: “All the people that used to drive who became transit people because driving sucked and transit was great, suddenly they are like, ‘Why am I taking the bus? I could catch a disease, all these people around me have COVID or could have COVID so I’m going to go back to driving.'”

With traffic volumes still way off, driving certainly looks a lot better right now.

For Millar, there is a concern this could be a systematic turn away from urban centers, turning the last few decades of planning on its head.

“There are all kinds of implications to that besides revenue for the DOT,” he said. “There’s issues with congestion. There are issues with real estate, and issues with labor relations and the rest. There’s a lot going on there.”

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Hallenbeck wonders if this could spark the return of the move to the suburbs and away from the cities. Why not move to where you get a better yard and a bigger house for a cheaper price, if there is no longer a terrible commute as the trade-off?

“When I look at ‘I’m only going to work two days a week,’ does that mean those people are going to drive, or are they going to get on a bus?,” he asked.

Hallenbeck said the suburbs certainly look really good under this scenario.

The state believes it will be up to four years before we see a return to what we used to call “normal” for congestion, tolling, and gas tax revenues, but that’s only if there isn’t this giant shift in public behavior that many believe is coming.

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