Later, we would learn that while traffic volume was down, speeding and dangerous driving were up. It was as if some pent-up impulse found vehicular release on relatively empty roadways.
And relatively empty is what they were. We were under stay-at-home orders, encouraged to work from home, discouraged from making unnecessary trips. And so — except for the occasional aforementioned anomaly — the highways around the District seemed like the highways in August. Wouldn’t it be lovely if they stayed that way?
The virus has changed so many things, who can say which changes will be temporary and which permanent? I mean, I haven’t set foot inside my office in nearly five months. Like millions of others, I’ve learned that my job may not even need an office.
The novel coronavirus and diseases as yet unknown have implications for all sorts of things, from commercial real estate to all-you-can-eat buffets. And yet the plan by the governor of Maryland to build toll lanes on the Beltway and I-270 just keeps ticking along.
The state just released the project’s draft environmental impact statement, a lengthy document that is getting a close read from opponents who, unless they can get an extension, have 90 days to comment.
Groups such as Citizens Against Beltway Expansion and the Sierra Club already were alarmed by how the deck seemed stacked against such options as increased transit and telecommuting options. Now that the virus has forced us to shift so many of our habits, they wonder whether Maryland should be reconsidering a $10 billion public-private partnership that would see houses, parks and playgrounds demolished so acres of concrete and asphalt can take their place.
“I don’t know if we know what the final lesson [of the pandemic] is going to be yet,” said Brad German of Citizens Against Beltway Expansion. “It’s still unwinding. It would certainly make sense to pause the effort to see what the lesson is going to be before we sink any more money into it.”
Jane Lyons, Maryland advocacy manager at the Coalition for Smarter Growth, said that if only some of our work-from-home habits stick with us after the pandemic is over, it could “pretty easily mean we don’t have the types of congestion we did before.”
If post-pandemic traffic stabilizes at 15 percent below pre-pandemic levels, it could obviate the need to spend billions of dollars on road expansion. And don’t forget that the way a private-public partnership works is that the private entity — the company that put forward the construction funds — must extract money from the public.
Said German: “They’re assuming that this is all going to evaporate, that once the pandemic is behind us, traffic will surge ahead to previous levels. I’m not sure that’s a correct bet.”
In an email, Maryland I-495 & I-270 P3 Program spokesman Terry Owens said state officials understand that covid-19 is having a substantial impact on commuting patterns. During April’s peak stay-at-home order, traffic volumes were down 50 percent. As restrictions have eased, traffic has increased.
“The growth of teleworking coming out of this pandemic is something we are watching closely,” Owens wrote. “The solutions we are developing are not only about solving today’s congestion challenges, but also about multimodal solutions that are adaptable to the growth expected in the region over the long-term.”
There’s another argument, one that was made in The Washington Post recently by Jason Stanford of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance. That is that fears of catching the virus will drive commuters away from public transportation and into private vehicles, increasing traffic, not decreasing it.
Lyons isn’t convinced. While she was originally worried about her own Metro commute, she said, “There’s starting to be more research from around the world. It seems to be that transit is pretty safe, as long as everybody’s wearing a mask, as they’re required to do.”
Lyons also pointed out that while we often think traffic is tied to getting to and from work, only a quarter of the trips people make are for commuting.
“The majority of trips — 75 percent — are actually things we don’t do anymore [during the pandemic]: errands, going to see friends, going to movies, things that hopefully we’ll be doing again in the near future,” she said.
Of course, those things may change, too. I’ve had two appointments with my doctor’s office since March. They were both over the Internet and they were great.
I realize that’s not going to work when I need to get my blood drawn or my teeth cleaned, but it underscores that unprecedented times call for creative measures. It’s way past time for Maryland to get creative about fixing its traffic problems, not just throwing private roads at them.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.