CHOKEPOINTS

Uncertainty surrounding COVID, work schedules brings changes to Puget Sound commute

Jan 13, 2022, 5:22 AM
Puget Sound commute...
Commuters along I-5 near Seattle. (SDOT, Flickr)
(SDOT, Flickr)

We usually see a dip in commute times over the winter holidays, but it springs right back after the first of the year. That didn’t happen this year.

How much time did Seattle drivers save on the roads in 2020?

I’ve been saying for a week that it’s been significantly lighter on the freeways in the morning than it should be at this time of year. Many kids are home with remote learning. Parents are home struggling with day care closures or children testing positive for COVID-19. People are still working from home. People are still getting sick.

Secretary of Transportation Roger Millar told the House Transportation Committee this week the number of cars on the roads is getting back to pre-pandemic levels, but it’s not there yet.

“The total numbers of cars, trucks and buses and the like out on the street is down 5-10%, but it’s at different times of day,” he described. “We need to understand that better.”

Pre-COVID, the Puget Sound area commute would start about 5:30 a.m., with drivers coming up from Thurston County and up the Valley Freeway from Sumner. By 6:30 a.m., we would be seeing bumper-to-bumper conditions on northbound 167, northbound I-5 from Federal Way, northbound 405 from Renton, and southbound I-5 and 405 out of Everett. The southbound 405 express toll lanes would usually hit the maximum of $10 by 6:45 a.m. out of Lynnwood. Hour-long travel times were routine, and that was with no accidents blocking roadways. The morning commute wouldn’t end until about 11 a.m.

Where are we now?

“The morning commute is way down, and the afternoon commute is kind of where it was,” Millar said.

It’s the mid-day traffic that is experiencing congestion like never before.

“People who can work from home are working at home, and then in the middle of the day they go out and take a car trip,” Millar said. “Rather than this morning peak and afternoon peak, we’re seeing a gradual increase until dinner time, and then it drops off.”

So two years into the pandemic, our traffic patterns have changed. Will they return to normal? No one really knows.

Why there are bumps along I-5 through downtown Seattle

The other message Millar hammered home to the Legislature is the need for real funding for transportation. While lawmakers have been focusing on other priorities, the state has failed to fund transportation adequately, he warns.

The state should be spending nearly $2 billion on preservation and maintenance every year. That’s the minimum to keep our roads and bridges in good repair. The Legislature hasn’t even come close to providing that.

“We have a shortfall that has risen to $966 million a year, and that number is going to continue to go up unless we do something about it,” Millar said.

Millar told lawmakers the state paves about 750 lane miles a year, with 3,500 lane miles due for repaving. Another 4,200 lane miles are past due; 18 bridges need replacement.

There is still a massive, multi-billion dollar transportation bill lurking in the background that comes with gas tax increases and carbon fees, but it likely won’t get done during this short session.

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Uncertainty surrounding COVID, work schedules brings changes to Puget Sound commute