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Opinion >  Column

Getting There: Inslee has asked people to celebrate at home, but Spokane traffic is higher now than it was before the pandemic

Traffic on I-90, seen here at the interchange with U.S. 195, was greatly reduced in March, early in the COVID-19 shutdown period. Since then, traffic has sharply increased.  (JESSE TINSLEY)
Traffic on I-90, seen here at the interchange with U.S. 195, was greatly reduced in March, early in the COVID-19 shutdown period. Since then, traffic has sharply increased. (JESSE TINSLEY)

Gov. Jay Inslee asked residents to scale back their Thanksgiving plans last week to help slow the spread of COVID-19.

But if past is prelude, the odds that the drivers of Spokane will heed that warning aren’t promising.

Traffic in and around the Lilac City hasn’t just increased sharply since a precipitous drop immediately after Inslee announced a stay-home order in March, it’s also up from 2019, when – assuming you can remember such a time – there was no pandemic.

The Washington State Department of Transportation’s COVID-19 multimodal transportation system performance dashboard offers a comprehensive and accessible public record of how transit has change since the coronavirus arrived, but Becky Spangle keeps an even more detailed eye on what’s happening on area roads.

As the manager of electronics and of the Spokane Regional Traffic Management Centers for WSDOT, Spangle produces daily updates that track area traffic counts.

On March 29, her records show people were largely heeding the pleas of politicians and public health officials: traffic at five monitoring stations around the city was down from the same day in 2019 an average of 53%.

Since then, though, it has gradually increased.

It was down 35% on April 13. It was down 19% on April 29. By May 22, it was down just 2% from 2019.

May 22 was also the day Spokane County moved to Phase 2 of Inslee’s statewide reopening plan.

And while Spokane County has remained stuck in Phase 2 ever since, traffic counts have continued to climb.

They first topped the equivalent day in 2019 on May 24, when traffic was up 1%. (Spangle compares not the same dates from each year but the same days of the week, since traffic varies so heavily between, say, a Friday and a Sunday.)

The size of the increase over pre-pandemic traffic levels has fluctuated. Most days, the percentage increase year-over-year has been somewhere in the single digits. But rarely has traffic actually been less this year than last, on a daily basis.

This despite the fact that schools are almost entirely out of session, employers have been encouraged to allow their workers to work from home and many businesses are operating at a reduced capacity.

Spangle says some of the growth can be attributed to a long-running trend of increased population in the Inland Northwest. “Before COVID, we were seeing an increase in volumes on a fairly regular basis,” she said.

Those increase were about 2% a year, “with an expectation that we were going to see up to a 10% increase in volumes” this year, Spangle said.

While she “can’t say with confidence” whether – and if so, by how much – traffic is lower than it would have been without a global pandemic and with the expected population growth, she said traffic “would probably be even higher if it wasn’t for COVID.”

“Where we are seeing reductions,” she added, “it could very well have to do with teleworking” and kids being out of schools.

And while Inslee might have hoped for gradual shifts in behavior with his phased reopening, the May 22 move to Phase 2 marked a turning point in traffic patterns, Spangle said.

“Once businesses were allowed to open at all, we started to definitely see a change,” she said. “Volumes certainly have been increasing since May.”

But while there’s not just more traffic on Spokane roads, Spangle said its pattern has changed. The morning and evening peaks that once caused congestion have given way to a thrum of cars.

“I-90, I feel like, is almost back to normal,” she said. “But the volumes are spread out from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. … That makes having the volumes on I-90 a lot more bearable.”

Spangle has noticed other seemingly pandemic-related changes as well.

With less congestion on the interstate, fewer cars are getting off between Sprague Avenue and Appleway Boulevard to bypass the back-ups. And with airline travel way down, so is traffic at U.S. 2 and I-90, where cars come and go to Spokane International Airport.

Another trend concerns our fellow Washingtonians on the other side of the Cascades.

“Our volumes came up so much faster than the West Side of the state,” Spangle said. “People just weren’t ready to go back out in the world over there.”

As for whether she expects Spokane residents to do as the governor asks and scale back their Thanksgiving Day plans, Spangle wouldn’t speculate. But she did say another factor may dampen holiday travel: the weather.

“We’ve already seen a decrease in volumes due to the onset of winter,” she said. And that, she added, “could likely affect the volume through the holidays.”

That suggests officials may be better off singing a different tune than the kind of appeal Inslee made for people to stay home this holiday season:

“Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!”

Work to watch for

Soda Road remains closed between Geiger Boulevard and Electric Avenue, and Geiger Boulevard remains closed between Electric Avenue and Spring Road. These closures are due to the installation of a water and sewer main. The project will shut down for winter on Thursday and is expected to be complete June 30.

Electric Avenue will also be closed between Geiger Boulevard and Thomas Mallon Road from Monday through Wednesday for a $1 million project to install a water and sewer main. A detour will be in place.

Crews are installing a water main on Howe Road to the east of McKinnon Road, leading to Howe’s closure from Lowe Road to Day-Mt. Spokane Road. Day-Mt. Spokane Road has also seen the closure of one lane due to the work. Closures and detours will remain in place until the work is completed on Nov. 23, according to a Spokane County news release.

Hamilton Street remains reduced to one lane in each direction as part of a $3.3 million project funded with local and federal funds to make safety and traffic flow improvements. Work at the Sharp Avenue and Illinois Avenue intersections is expected to wrap up around Thanksgiving, according to a city of Spokane news release. Work on the final two intersections, North Foothills Drive and Indiana Avenue, will be completed in the spring.

The Market/Greene Street corridor has been reduced to one lane in each direction between Jackson and Euclid Avenue as part of work on the North Spokane Corridor, but the city expected work will be complete by Wednesday.

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