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D.C. Area Traffic Heavier, Costlier

By Steven Ginsberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 8, 2004; Page A01

Washingtonians are spending ever more time stuck in traffic -- nearly three full days a year for the average commuter -- according to a national study released yesterday that also showed the region cemented in its ignominious role as home to the nation's third-worst traffic congestion.

The study, done annually by the Texas Transportation Institute, also found that congestion is worsening across the nation because of a lack of transportation funding, land-use planning and highway management.

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Metro Area Traffic: The Washington Post's Lyndsey Layton discusses the latest report on traffic in the D.C. area.
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Texas Transportation Institute's 2004 Urban Mobility Report (PDF)
Traffic Data for Washington Region (PDF)
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Live Traffic and Transit Information
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"Congestion is increasing in cities of all sizes," said Tim Lomax, an author of the study. Only commuters in the Los Angeles and San Francisco-Oakland regions suffer through worse traffic.

The numbers for Washingtonians are mind-numbing: The average commuter in 2002 spent 67 hours in congestion; the region gave up a collective 126.6 million hours to traffic; trips took half again as long during rush hour as during non-peak times, and an estimated $2.3 billion was lost in congestion-related costs. That's about as much as the cost of a new Woodrow Wilson Bridge.

What's more, things keep getting worse. In 1982, the average Washington area commuter spent 21 hours stuck in traffic. That more than doubled to 48 hours by 1992 and jumped to 67 in 2002. The national average is 46.

None of this came as any surprise to area drivers, particularly yesterday, when roadways were jammed with cars shuttling children to and from school and commuters who had just returned from vacation.

"Every day it starts to add up, and it gets to the point where you're really wasting a lot of time," said Erin Gottert, who commutes from Woodbridge to the District. "I think about it, but I won't let myself count it. If I did, I would be far too depressed."

The study results are based on 2002 data compiled by state and federal traffic agencies for 85 cities. Lomax said that the institute compared traffic counts and miles of traffic lanes to estimate congestion levels. The methods used in the study and the way the data are reported have been adjusted since last year, Lomax said.

Yesterday, the region's transportation interest groups welcomed the report. Highway advocates, transit backers, slow-growth groups, environmentalists and others all claimed that all or parts of the study justified their positions.

The Surface Transportation Policy Project said the report highlights the need for more public transit; the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance said it shows that the region needs to invest in more roads and bridges; and the Bush administration said federally funded high-tech traffic information services are helping ease congestion.

"As we sit here on the day after Labor Day and focus on traffic, the focus should be on the speculative pace of development" in Loudoun, Prince William and Prince George's counties, said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. "Without changing land use, we can't solve this [traffic] problem."

Development promises to worsen traffic, as many area jurisdictions continue to approve thousands of homes in areas where roads already are strained. In Loudoun, for example, developers want to build thousands of homes in an area where traffic clogs virtually every road.

But the study essentially endorsed a range of policy positions -- that more roads are needed, that current facilities need to be managed more efficiently, that drivers should be encouraged to use roads during off-peak times and that land-use plans should set limits on suburban growth.

Different groups also latched onto different charts to draw different rankings. For instance, Washington was third in commuter hours lost in traffic, fourth in travel time and seventh in total hours lost to congestion.

The study found that while transportation officials in the Washington region employ proven measures to relieve congestion -- controlling the pace at which cars enter highways, clearing roads after accidents, timing traffic lights and managing access to secondary roads -- they could do a far better job with the tools they have. The region ranked 12th in using those tactics to fight congestion.

"We still have some water to squeeze out of that towel by instituting better traffic coordination," said Bob Grow of the Greater Washington Board of Trade. But, he said, "in the long run, we need to focus on infrastructure."

The report also found that the Washington area benefits immensely from public transit, reducing by 35 the peak-time hours the average commuter loses in traffic annually, and cutting what could be commuting costs by an estimated $1.2 billion a year.

Based on the report, some groups also renewed calls on Congress to reauthorize its six-year transportation bill. The bill, which provides the billions that states count on to help pay for major projects, has been stalled since last year.

C. Kenneth Orski, editor of the transportation newsletter Innovation Briefs, said the report largely omitted an important piece of infrastructure that area leaders are working to build: toll lanes in which fees are adjusted according to traffic volume. That concept "deserves its own classification because it is a very inventive and effective solution, and it deserves its own place in the catalogue of congestion relief solutions," Orski said.

Virginia officials approved a plan last month to add such toll lanes on the Capital Beltway, while leaders in Maryland are planning similar concepts on the Beltway and other major roads.


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