DOT official says pandemic might change commuting habits for good

    A Georgia Department of Transportation official told a state Senate committee that commuter traffic is way down in 2020 and new work-from-home habits might be permanent for many. Overhead signs that once warned of traffic jams ahead transformed into public health alerts during Georgia's COVID-19 pandemic. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

    Georgia highways and side streets that usually bustle with traffic remained mostly clear of congestion over the last couple of months as drivers stayed home to avoid the spreading COVID-19 pandemic.

    And while a few more cars are now back on the roads as businesses slowly reopen, the state’s highway department director says it should become more apparent in the coming months whether new work-at-home habits will become permanent ways for many people to report to jobs.

    Traffic is down 20% in Georgia compared to this time last year. During the governor’s shelter-at-place order that kept commuters home during April, traffic volume dipped as much as 50%, according to the Georgia Department of Transportation.

    As some Georgians get back in their cars to go to work, chances are many people will continue working from home now that they know they can do their jobs remotely, transportation Commissioner Russell McMurry said during a state Senate transportation committee hearing Thursday.

    The drivers who do get on the roads could start to see a decline in the quality of their windshield view, though, after next year’s budget kicks in July 1. The transportation department is proposing a $48 million spending cut for routine roadway maintenance, which means spending less for litter pickup, road striping and weed treatment.

    Once schools reopen in August with buses on the road and parents dropping children off on the way to work, transportation officials will get a better idea of whether the future holds less traffic congestion for the long run, McMurry said.

    “We’ve been promoting telework forever,” he said during a Senate budget subcommittee meeting Thursday. “I think we could have a bright future with a nice balance. You’ll have some congestion – that’s the sign of the growing, vibrant economy, but it may not be as bad as it once was.”

    Gov. Brian Kemp Wednesday eased some of the belt-tightening pain for departments heads when he said they can reduce their spending plans by 11% rather than the 14% cut he requested a few weeks ago. For the department charged with building and maintaining Georgia’s roads and bridges, that frees up $65 million.

    For the state toll authority, the drop off in car traffic means significantly less revenue from people paying tolls with their Peach Pass to avoid congestion along metro Atlanta’s I-85 and I-75 corridors, said Christopher Tomlinson, executive director at the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority & State Road and Tollway Authority. 

    Next year, the authority expects to collect $19.5 million in tolls instead of the $46 million estimated before the coronavirus outbreak kept most people off the roads. The forecast is a 35-60% revenue reduction for the I-85 express lanes, the Northwest Corridor and I-75 South Metro Express Lanes.

    The loss in toll collections means the authority expects to draw at least $3 million from reserves.

    “Because our toll rates are based on what we call congestion-based pricing, they rise with congestion. We think we’ll see the trips return, but the average toll amount is going to decrease,” Tomlinson said.

    State transportation officials are still waiting on more recent information to measure the full impact of COVID-19 shutdowns on motor fuel tax revenue and fees.

    Sen. Steve Gooch, chairman of the subcommittee, suggested the department’s financial damage would be far worse off if not for changes to gas tax collections brought by 2015 legislation allowing the collection of fuel excise taxes instead of relying on sales taxes.

    “Have you looked at what the impact would be to the DOT? It would have to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars, right?” the Dahlonega Republican said.

    McMurry said relying on sales tax so far this year would be “devastating” to the department.

    “The problem before the Transportation Funding Act of 2015 was the volatility based on retail. And obviously, local governments still have some of that volatility on the sales tax at the local level,” he said.

    Stanley Dunlap
    Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. At The (Macon) Telegraph he told readers about Macon-Bibb County’s challenges implementing its recent consolidation, with a focus on ways the state Legislature determines the fate of local communities. He used open records requests to break a story of a $400 million pension sweetheart deal a county manager steered to a friendly consultant. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting for his story on the death of Gregg Allman and best beat reporting for explanatory articles on the 2018 Macon-Bibb County budget deliberations. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo, which became a sensational murder case that generated national headlines.