Combined, these have created a historic challenge for the region to address our chronic, severe congestion just when the economic slump has gutted state and local budgets.
“The entire context for everything has just completely changed,” said Robert Puentes, president of the Eno Center for Transportation.
“Just look at what happened with Metro,” he said. “You were seeing ridership increases just before the pandemic. . . . Now you have this unbelievable scenario where you have transit officials encouraging people not to ride” because of virus concerns.
It’s not all bad news. The District has used the time with fewer people on the roads to build more dedicated bus lanes. Bicycle use is up. Fewer Metro riders and vehicles on the roads have given Metro and transportation departments time to catch up on maintenance and repairs.
Still, much of the picture is ominous. Here are some highlights of transportation challenges confronting the region.
●Metro. Officials use terms like “catastrophic” and “armageddon” to describe the system’s money woes. Prospects worsened last week when Congress and the White House failed to agree on a financial relief package, in which Democrats want to include billions of dollars for public transit systems.
If more federal aid isn’t forthcoming, the Metro board in September would have to consider making significant service cuts, furloughing thousands of workers, or both. The transit agency might also have to delay completion of Phase 2 of the Silver Line, which is supposed to open sometime next year, and the purchase of its next generation of rail cars, the 8000 series.
The plunge in ridership is costing Metrorail and Metrobus a total of $2.5 million in revenue each weekday. Metro doesn’t expect ridership to recover until January at the earliest, and probably not until a vaccine is widely available.
Metro has been able to sustain service so far only because of aid it received in the federal relief package approved in March, but that money is going to run out soon. Negotiations over another package collapsed last week but could be revived.
Metro and the region’s Democratic-dominated congressional delegation want any federal package to provide at least $32 billion for the nation’s transit systems.
But Metro officials and outside analysts say the best they can hope for is probably an overall total of $15 billion, because of resistance to new spending from the Republican-led Senate and the White House. Metro’s share of that would be about $800 million, which is not enough to avoid furloughs and service reductions.
“What we keep hearing, if there is any [transit] funding, it may fall closer to $15 billion, which is not adequate,” said Joe McAndrew, managing director for transportation at the Greater Washington Partnership.
State and local governments are also hoping to receive federal aid in the next relief package. Without it, the District, Maryland and Virginia would be hard-pressed to do much to help Metro.
●●Telework. Perhaps the biggest unknown is the extent to which the rise in telework will transform commuting patterns.
There’s little doubt that more people will telework after the pandemic than before, but no one knows by how much. A difference of a few percentage points in the rate of teleworking can translate to tens of thousands of cars on the road, or passengers on subways and buses.
A July survey of 180 companies in the region found that the average share of workers who telecommuted at least occasionally rose from about 1 in 3 before the pandemic to 4 in 5 during it.
The report, commissioned by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG), also found that 57 percent of work sites expected to see a long-term increase in teleworking, even when the pandemic is behind us, compared with pre-pandemic levels.
Partly because of telework, traffic volume in the Washington metropolitan area was down 22 percent in mid-June, compared with before the pandemic, according to the traffic analysis firm INRIX.
COG Deputy Executive Director Kanti Srikanth cautioned that telework was “not a silver bullet to address all our mobility needs.” But he said it was “definitely an opportunity now to see if we can get that big push to enter the next level” of working from home.
●Highway widening. Transit advocates cited telework as a reason to rethink proposed highway expansions, especially Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s plan to add toll lanes to parts of Interstate 270 and the Capital Beltway (Interstate 495).
Telework “could reduce peak-hour travel by as much as 10 percent or more,” said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. “All our highway expansion has been tied to peak-hour demand. This calls into question highway expansion.”
Maryland Del. Marc A. Korman (D-Montgomery), a critic of Hogan’s plan, said a drop in commuting volume would worry private companies recruited by the state to build the project in return for toll revenue.
“Is it going to be profitable, or are [the companies] going to demand even more of a taxpayer subsidy of some kind, so they can turn a profit?” Korman said.
Hogan (R) has said the project would not require taxpayer funds, but a recent state study said a state subsidy might be necessary depending on how toll revenue stacked up against construction and borrowing costs.
Erin Henson, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Transportation, said the I-495 and I-270 projects were important not only for commuters but also for trucking.
“As we plan for Maryland recovery, these critical infrastructure projects are key to rebuilding our economy and keeping the supply chain moving,” Henson said.
But she added that MDOT will “track trends in travel behavior and monitor traffic volumes,” and “consider all new information that becomes available to ensure solutions will meet the needs of Marylanders.”
●Budgets. Sharply reduced state revenue means less spending and more delays for road, bridge and transit projects.
The Northern Virginia Transportation Authority cut $240 million from its spending plans for 2020 through 2023, a reduction of about one-seventh. Among other things, that means less money to widen the Richmond Highway (Route 1) and add a bus rapid transit line there.
Virginia Transportation Secretary Shannon Valentine told a virtual conference of the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday that construction of a much-anticipated new span at the Long Bridge over the Potomac River — a vital passenger and freight rail connection between the District and Arlington — could now require up to 14 years, instead of 10, to complete the project’s first two phases.
Reduced funding in Maryland will make it harder for the state to come up with hundreds of millions of dollars it may need to complete the light-rail Purple Line.
Stretched budgets will encourage governments to spend scarce money on less-expensive projects such as adding bus service, creating dedicated bus lanes, and improving bike and pedestrian networks.
“It does make sense to be investing in relatively inexpensive improvements to the bus network,” Puentes said.
●Escape from the city? Finally, there’s much discussion but little certainty about whether the pandemic will reverse the “back to the city” movement that has swelled the population of the District and other prosperous urban centers.
There are some signs that people will be less interested in living in dense neighborhoods, where social distancing is more difficult. Increased use of telework may reduce demand for commercial office space.
Maura Brophy, director of transportation and infrastructure at the Federal City Council, said those trends, combined with the District’s high housing costs, pose a risk to the city’s economic competitiveness.
“If employees no longer see the benefit of physically locating here, that’s a real threat to the economy,” Brophy said. “If the benefit of being in the office doesn’t outweigh the cost of the commute — whether safety cost or economic cost — people just aren’t going to do it.”
But a surge of residents to the suburbs, where people are more car dependent, would only aggravate traffic.
For now, planners say the immediate task is more study of all these issues.
“It’s very important that we take a second look, a deeper dive at the long-term impacts,” said Monica Backmon, executive director of the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority. “What will our new normal look like?”