WILKES-BARRE – The Indicators 2021 report from the Institute for Public Policy & Economic Development at Wilkes University, shows that the economic and social changes brought about by the pandemic also suggest several areas of long-term uncertainty that may have an impact. on transport and land use in the future.

Teri Ooms, executive director of the Institute for Public Policy & Economic Development at Wilkes University, said this week that there was uncertainty about the future of the work, with much more work being done remotely.

“If the jobs that have moved to part-time or fully virtual work make this change permanent, the reduction seen in VMT during the pandemic could be a long-term trend at least to some extent,” Ooms said. “As the jobs most likely to be telecommuted tend to be higher paying jobs in white collar industries, private car trips are likely to be affected by this trend than public transit trips in the north. -East Pennsylvania, particularly during weekday morning and evening rush hours. .

Ooms said the housing market in the region has seen changes since the start of the pandemic. She said anecdotal reports suggest high market activity, and some reports have suggested a wave of migration out of dense population centers in large metropolitan areas at the start of the pandemic.

“A major factor that will shape land use, and by extension, transport in the future is whether the pandemic will cause a long-term change in attitudes about urban density,” Ooms said. “If associated with regional population growth, such a change could lead to a new wave of single-family home development in the suburbs and increase private vehicle travel.

Another area of ​​uncertainty is how the continued importance of e-commerce and other consumer trends will persist or return to pre-pandemic conditions. Ooms said if e-commerce continues to supplant in-person shopping, distribution centers and associated transportation infrastructure will continue to be needed. The region’s position along Interstate 80 and 81 corridors and the availability of suitable land have already facilitated a distribution center boom, and the region would be well positioned to see further growth in this industry in a scenario where levels pandemic online shopping persist. The Institute has published research on the impacts on transport of this industrial cluster in 2020.

Finally, the future of government funding for transportation is an important public policy issue that must be considered. Even before the onset of the pandemic caused a drop in fuel demand, affecting revenues for road and bridge repairs, concerns were expressed that increased fuel economy and increased fuel costs were raised. Trends towards alternative fuel vehicles undermine the long-term financial sustainability of transportation finance. The continued interest in electric vehicles (or other alternative fuels) may also require political action to support the development of sufficient recharging or refueling infrastructure.

Impacts on municipal services

Ooms said the issues raised here would also extend to other infrastructure-related public services. Many revenue streams that city governments rely on are subject to varying degrees of risk due to COVID-19 and the widespread economic distress associated with it.

The most serious impacts will be on elastic revenue sources – those that are highly sensitive to changes in consumer behavior or to business closures due to the virus. Income tax (EIT) is a large and elastic source of municipal revenue for many towns, boroughs and townships in Pennsylvania. Other elastic income streams are likely to see short-term income declines due to COVID-19. These include taxes on real estate transfers, taxes on entertainment, taxes on mechanical devices, taxes on local services and taxes on gross business receipts, the latter two being the most important for cities. examined here. Inelastic revenue sources, such as property taxes, may be affected to a lesser extent, but not immune to risk. Municipalities whose budgets are made up of a greater share of elastic revenue sources are the most vulnerable to financial problems due to the pandemic.

“These big fiscal challenges will affect the delivery of many municipal public services,” Ooms said. “Limited municipal funds could even negatively affect some projects or programs funded by external grants if municipal matching funds cannot be allocated. In addition, state allocations through the Liquid Fuels program, a major source of funds for local governments for the maintenance of roads and bridges, fell about seven percent in 2021 due to COVID-19. . “

In March 2021, the US bailout was enacted. The bill allocates $ 350 billion in direct aid to state governments, local governments, and other public entities (such as transit operators) in the United States, including $ 13.7 billion for state and local governments in Pennsylvania. Aid dispersed under the bill can be used to cover costs or replace income lost during the pandemic.

Summary & conclusions

Strong transport networks, including roads, bridges, public transport, airports and freight trains, will be essential for the region’s economic recovery in the future. In particular, the rapid and continued growth of the logistics industry will shape the transportation needs of commuters and freight. Nationally, freight has already rebounded as cargo continues to flow despite the pandemic.

The kilometers traveled by vehicles saw a significant drop at the start of the pandemic, with drops reaching 40% or more. Traffic has since rebounded and stabilized ten to fifteen percent below pre-pandemic levels. With the decrease in the number of kilometers driven, there has been a corresponding decrease in the demand for fuel. As fuel taxes contribute significantly to transportation financing in Pennsylvania, VMT’s persistent lag behind pre-pandemic levels, even in late 2020, indicates that transportation funding will remain problematic.

Transit ridership was also significantly affected by the pandemic, signaling substantial declines in travel that persisted through 2020, even as unemployment rates fell from the peaks in April. Ooms said there was no apparent evidence that public transport is particularly prone to the spread of COVID, especially since security measures such as universal masking have been implemented. Perceptions of passenger safety still matter, but as vaccines help restore a sense of normalcy, public transport will remain an important part of the region’s transport infrastructure.

Telework and telehealth could be longer-term factors affecting the trips taken, affecting public transit as well as other modes. The impact on public transport use of switching to telework may be somewhat limited, as low-income workers, who use public transport more frequently, are generally less able to work remotely, especially workers. arts, entertainment, accommodation and food services.

Several areas of uncertainty remain that will affect land use and, by extension, transport.

“It is not known how the pandemic will shape consumers’ perceptions of urban density, cause migration to the region from major metropolitan areas, or lead to increased interest in developing distribution center uses,” Ooms said. “In addition, the future of financing transport, infrastructure and public services is an area of ​​primary concern that must be addressed through sound public policy. “/

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Contact Bill O’Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle.