Perhaps one silver lining of the pandemic that everyone can agree on is the lessening of traffic in the past 12 months. Northern Virginians have become accustomed to gridlock, often ranking among the worst commutes in the country. But as hundreds of thousands shifted to remote work, fewer cars have been on the region’s roads in the past year.
In fact, the Virginia Department of Transportation reports that because there were fewer daily commuters, it was able to extend lane closures for longer periods of time on its Transform 66 Outside the Beltway project (a road improvement project that kicked off in 2017 and aims to relieve congestion on a 22.5-mile stretch of I-66 from I-495 to near Route 29 in Gainesville) and ultimately made significant construction progress in summer and fall of 2020. Extended lane closures have allowed for a better balance of the workload for 2020 and 2021, a spokesperson told Northern Virginia Magazine.
Indeed, a quick drive west on I-66 from the I-495 interchange to Gainesville, which is the start and finish of the 22-mile project, reveals a nonstop lineup of construction work on both sides of the interstate.
The project is expected to be completed on time in December 2022 and will enable up to 4,000 more daily commuters (there are 200,000 daily commuters now) to move through this heavily congested I-66 corridor outside the Beltway.
Although one could argue that the improvements may end up for naught—analysts say the pandemic could ease traffic permanently as more people work from home.
“I suspect that the traffic in Northern Virginia will be less heavy during commute times but more random [throughout the day] because more people will be working from home.”
“I suspect that the traffic in Northern Virginia will be less heavy during commute times but more random [throughout the day] because more people will be working from home,” says futurist Robert Moran. He projects that there will be a 20 percent to 35 percent reduction in rush-hour commuting even after the pandemic is effectively over.
In addition, since daily commutes could be a thing of the past for many workers, he projects a sharp rise in “super commuters,” which are Northern Virginians who move much farther out to bucolic areas with more land (think Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, or Gordonsville) knowing that they only need to drive to their urban workplace one to two times per week.
What about Metro?
When the pandemic took hold and businesses shuttered, the Metro quickly became a ghost town—and it had already been facing a PR crisis at the time as the safety of the underground transit system had come into question in recent years.
The area’s rapid transit metro rail and bus service used to be held up as a nationwide model of a successful rapid transit system. The DC region’s Metrorail is the second busiest in the country (second only to New York City); Metrobus is the sixth busiest.
Over 1 million passengers took the train or bus every weekday during normal operations, with most using it to go to and from work or to and from home.
Metro has a budget of $3 billion and maintains a bus and rail fleet of $40 billion in physical assets. In early 2020, Metro had launched a $15.5 billion 10-year capital improvement program, with plans to bring back customers with a safer, more reliable and more affordable transit system.
But COVID has sent that plan back to the drawing board.
Metro shut down the rail system in mid-February, slowly reopening various stations through the spring and early summer with COVID protocols for entry and exit. In March 2020, Metro was losing $2 million in rail and bus revenue every weekday, according to WMATA’s general manager and CEO Paul Wiedefeld.
The rail system had reopened all 91 stations as of press time, allowing more trips and more riders. But, for example, on Friday, Jan. 29, there were 80,000 Metrorail trips, which reflects a stunning 87 percent decline from the same time in 2019. Ridership numbers were similarly low throughout the latter half of 2020 and into early 2021.
WMATA has provided nearly 30,000 gallons of disinfectant, 75,000 gallons of hand sanitizer, nearly 2 million pairs of gloves and nearly 3 million face masks to keep employees and customers safe.
Masks are required, and entry and exit protocols are helping. But Metro officials say that social distancing may not work as the buses and trains begin to return to pre-pandemic crowd levels (however, it’s been widely reported that Metro—facing a budget crunch—likely won’t return to pre-pandemic levels anytime soon). As crowds increase, officials will continue to work on best practices to ensure a safe ride.
After the pandemic
- What will change: Traffic will continue to be lighter but more unpredictable; the rise of the “super commuter.”
- What will return to normal: All Metro stations have reopened with the hope of ridership increasing.