State and regional transportation leaders are looking at a changing world in commuting brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, and as people who were sent home to telework wonder whether they should ever go back into the office.
“People have realized teleworking is much more advantageous than we might have believed before,” said Loudoun County Chair Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large), who also chairs the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, during a virtual Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce PolicyMaker Series breakfast. “So, we’re not sure when we may go back to level of people traveling to work, or if we will ever go back to the levels of traveling to work.”
The NVTA’s six-year plan funnels hundreds of millions of dollars a year into transportation projects in Northern Virginia, funded by a regional sales tax and other fees. Across its six-year plan, the Authority is helping fund 106 transportation projects in the region totaling nearly $2.5 billion.
“We believe that teleworking in the future will very greatly impact what’s going to happen as far as needed funding,” Randall said. “What that might mean is, a lot of transportation dollars, we will take a second look at what that may look like. We won’t really know until we get a vaccine, and probably six months after that.”
Fortunately, she said, the economy may be a leading indicator, bouncing back more quickly than commuting numbers.
But the changes wrought by the pandemic have leaders in the authority wondering about both their revenues and their spending plan.
“It is going to have an impact, there’s no other way to say that,” said Virginia Deputy Secretary of Transportation Nick Donohue. “I think the real question is just what is the extent of that, and are their policies, working with the General Assembly and local governments, that we can put in place to really mitigate those direct impacts to currently-programmed projects. I expect that that will require legislation.”
It also is not the first time transportation funding in the region has taken a hit. The NVTA lost two major sources of revenue in 2018 when the General Assembly redirected hotel tax and grantor’s tax revenues to help pay for Metro.
The General Assembly will reconvene Aug. 18, when state lawmakers are expected to adopt not only a new state budget—the last one having been signed in May—as well as criminal justice and police reform. Loudoun County government has already placed $100 million in reserve with, Randall said, no plan to unfreeze that money until after the October tax collection shows the state of the county’s revenues.
Randall said at least one major transportation project isn’t expected to be affected by pandemic revenues—the effort to bring the Silver Line into Loudoun. She pointed out Loudoun has already been paying into that project for years in anticipation of its opening, and is ahead of its obligations. The rail extension is expected to begin operation in the first quarter of 2021.