Just behind photos of doctors and nurses with sunken eyes and faces marred by the masks and shields made necessary by the COVID-19 pandemic this past year, one of the visually striking images I recall is biking across Everett’s 23rd Street in March.
Normally it produced a steady thrum from traffic on I-5 underneath as afternoon commuters slugged their way north. But for a stretch of the pandemic when the stay-home orders were at their height and even Snohomish County’s largest employer largely shut down, our byways and highways started to look like scenes from post-apocalyptic movies.
Eventually, people began to return to work and traffic steadily rose. But it remains below the former average from pre-coronavirus life in Snohomish County and Western Washington.
That’s just one of the developments I’m keen on tracking this year: How long and how will the pandemic affect daily travel around here?
Even with vaccines being distributed, we know we’re not done with the virus that has killed over 349,000 Americans and has hospitalized hundreds of thousands. Much of the road ahead will be paved by the pandemic, possibly similar to what’s happened in the previous 10 months or in response to it.
Here are some of the other major transportation stories to follow in the year ahead.
When will we go back to work?
I’m interested in hearing how people already shifted last year and could change their commute in 2021. Does it require negotiations with your boss(es)? Are employers offering telecommute options for workers whose duties can be done remotely? What about car trip reduction programs? Are you losing time but gaining the serenity of not rage-shaking your fist at bad drivers?
Ginger Goodin wrote in a commentary for the Dallas Morning News that she and others with Texas A&M Transportation Institute are studying what is required to support the nation’s transportation system after the pandemic.
“Any lasting shift to telecommuting could reduce traffic congestion, traffic crashes, vehicle emissions and other negative factors,” Goodin wrote.
A 2019 Washington state report about broadband noted benefits in employer savings, reduced greenhouse emissions, recovered worker time from not commuting and lower traffic congestion, among other gains, from telecommuting.
The Brookings Institute reported in April that up to half of American employees were working from home. That more than doubled the number of people who said they at least occasionally telecommuted in 2017-18. Data from this past year is expected to yield important information about employee satisfaction, productivity and more that could encourage permanent telecommutes.
How will we get there?
With more people working from home or many unemployed, buses, ferries, roads and trains were far less crowded.
Many public transportation options responded to the dramatic demand dip with service cuts, especially while Boeing was shuttered.
Budgets for Community Transit and Everett Transit are based on modest growth in ridership this year. But cuts to Everett Transit service, including an entire route and holiday and Sunday service is up for elimination.
But if more people are required to return to their actual workplace and transit options aren’t there immediately, they could just rely on their cars. Once that becomes a habit, it can be tough to break.
One bright spot for transit options this year will be the opening of Sound Transit’s Link light rail service to Northgate. Once open, Community Transit will run more buses to connect riders there and begin to phase out its service to the University of Washington and downtown Seattle.
Community Transit’s work for its Swift Orange bus rapid transit line will continue ahead of its projected 2024 opening, in line with Lynnwood Link light rail service’s expected start.
Light rail progress from Northgate to Lynnwood City Center, the new name of the area that now hosts the Lynnwood Transit Center, is on track to open on time.
But questions abound about the Everett Link extension, originally set to open in 2036, with official Sound Transit projections expected in June or July.
Road work and more road work
The sustained population growth of east and north Snohomish County has added traffic to I-5 and its eastern parallel, Highway 9. The Washington State Department of Transportation has been improving parts of it in phases, starting with locations with the worst problems.
People going through Lake Stevens will notice work on a new northbound lane near the Highway 204 intersection. All of the work there, including roundabouts, is slated to wrap in 2023.
Farther south near Snohomish, design work is being done to widen the highway between Marsh Road and Second Street. That project includes new southbound bridges over the Snohomish River and a rebuilt on-ramp from Second Street to the highway. Construction is estimated to begin in 2022 and wrap in 2025.
WSDOT also is in the early stages of evaluating the U.S. 2 and Highway 204 interchange between Everett and Lake Stevens with an interchange justification report.
Similarly, the City of Everett is spearheading such a report for the west end of U.S. 2 at I-5.
Cut, merge or ask for more?
Continuing a major transit question from the past two years is the future of Everett Transit. A possible merger with Community Transit, which serves most of Snohomish County, remains on the table. But doing so likely would cost Everett taxpayers more as Community Transit’s tax rates are higher.
The Everett City Council could ask voters for a tax increase to fund the city’s transit service, but the union representing Everett Transit employees is considering doing so by referendum. That would require signatures from Everett voters.
For its part, Community Transit has a new CEO who will take over its bus rapid transit development and proposed system expansions, especially in east and north Snohomish County, according to the agency’s six-year plan.
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