“This is one of those odd times when bad news is good news,” said Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean T. Connaughton. “The reason we have more congestion is that the Washington region has a very strong economy. I go to other parts of the state and they say they have no transportation problems.”
The 74 hours the average commuter is stuck in traffic each years burn 37 gallons of fuel; the average cost per area driver at the pump and in lost wages comes to $1,495. Local drivers travel bumper to bumper more than twice the national average of 34 hours.
“The biggest change in the commute has been all the construction,” said Darryl Colbert, who has driven into the District from Bowie for 20 years. “A good example is Central Avenue. I used to take that to avoid a backup on Route 50, but now they’ve got steel plates there for the Addison Road construction, and that causes a backup because nobody wants to tear their car up.”
There are efforts underway to create some congestion relief — the Intercounty Connector in Maryland, the Beltway high-occupancy toll lanes and the Metro extension in Virginia and several smaller projects — but officials fear that none of it is enough.
Projections by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments suggest that without significant investment in highways and transit, congestion could stifle the region’s desire to grow. By 2030, the regional population is estimated to increase by 1.2 million, newcomers drawn by 874,000 new jobs.
Public transit, one possible source of relief, has its own issues. Washington’s deteriorating Metro system is in the midst of a $5 billion capital improvement effort just to increase safety and bring the system into good repair.
Highway advocates see another bridge across the Potomac as critical to improvement. Transit and smart-growth proponents see developing communities around rail and bus hubs that are near job centers as a better choice.
But the next great transportation project hasn’t made it off the drawing boards, given the dismal funding prospects, and nothing so grand as the $2.4 billion Wilson Bridge replacement is likely to come around again.
The annual Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) study of urban congestion shows that Washington drivers spent an average of 84 hours delayed in traffic in the three years prior to the opening of the new Wilson Bridge. The number has dropped to an average of 73 hours in the past three years.
“The problem with the commute is that it’s just so random,” said Jeff Lancaster, who says he’s never sure what to expect between his home in Annapolis and his job in downtown Washington. “I don’t think it’s changed so much. It’s just the same. ”