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Traffic congestion has returned to near-normal levels across Washington

After months of lighter rush hour traffic during the pandemic, traffic levels are starting to rise back to normal levels. (Photo by Karen Ducey/Getty Images)

You’ve surely noticed it as you drive around: There are a lot more cars on the road. The congestion has returned to the usual spots, and traffic numbers are returning to pre-COVID levels.

I don’t need to tell you that the bumper to bumper traffic has returned in Renton in the morning, or the pre-COVID congestion has returned to southbound I-5 in Mountlake Terrace. I have been watching the commute slowly return for about the last six weeks.

So has Washington Department of Transportation traffic engineer Morgan Balogh.

“There’s peak hours now,” he said. “The peak hours don’t start as early, and they don’t last as long. We do have congestion out there.”

I have noticed two distinct morning peak hours developing. There is one between 6:30-7 a.m., and another between 7:45-8:30 a.m. In the pre-COVID days, we would see congestion start about 5:45 a.m. and last through 10 a.m. with continuous waves of cars on the roads.

The state has been tracking the stats, daily, at locations across Washington. Balogh said the congestion disappeared in March when the stay-at-home orders took effect.

“Traffic volumes dropped about 50%, and then they started coming up fairly steadily,” he said. “They have leveled off.”

The latest numbers show we’re only off about 10% from this time last year. Some roads are almost back to normal, like 167 through the Kent Valley, Highway 16 across the Narrows Bridge, and I-5 approaching Mercer in Seattle. Traffic volumes are still way down on the lake bridges, I-90 is still off 30%, 520 is off 50%.

The tolled facilities are making a comeback, too. They were off 70% at the peak. Now, they are hovering just over 30%. Ferry ridership is starting to comeback as well.

What’s not coming back as quickly?

“We see the HOV lanes are down more than the general purpose lanes,” Balogh said. “Maybe people aren’t carpooling as much as they used to.”

And that follows exactly what we are seeing with mass transit. People are still not willing to share a ride, whether in a carpool, a bus, or a train. Transit ridership across the state is still off more than 50%. Sound Transit is down more than 80% and King County Metro is off more than 60%.

A tour of the recently completed Bellevue Sound Transit tunnel

The afternoon commute is much heavier than the morning commute, at least right now. It’s not back to pre-COVID congestion, but Balogh said it’s getting close.

“Some places around I-5 in the south end, it’s almost the same as it was before, maybe just a little bit shorter,” he said.

So don’t expect to breeze through Federal Way, Fife, and Tacoma, or even through JBLM some afternoons.

It will be interesting to see if the rest of the congestion returns as kids return to school, but with most schools going online, including the University of Washington, I expect it to stay about where it is.

The one x-factor continues to be commuter behavior. Will the people who used to take transit and have switched to their cars continue that practice? That will add cars to the mix that weren’t there a year ago, which could really impact the overall congestion going forward.

Check out more of Chris’ Chokepoints.

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