D.C. Traffic Creeps Toward Nation's Worst
Area Drivers Spend Almost 69 Hours in Gridlock a Year

By Steven Ginsberg and Timothy Dwyer
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Gridlock has increased its stranglehold on the region, as a national study released yesterday showed that Washington area residents spend an average of 69 hours a year in traffic jams at a cost of $577 per commuter.

The Washington area had the third-worst traffic congestion in the United States, behind Los Angeles and San Francisco, for the fifth year in a row. For those keeping score, local motorists spent an additional three hours a year in tie-ups, and the region closed the gap between second and third place, the study said. For commuters, the results of the study confirmed what they knew: Already unpredictable commutes are even less predictable, and things aren't getting better.

"This is like the Olympics of gridlock," said Lon Anderson, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. "And I think our leaders have it wrong. I think they think we should be going for the gold. This is not an honor for which we should be proud."

The study, done by the Texas Transportation Institute and based on 2003 statistics, also found that congestion is worsening in metropolitan areas where too few roads and rail lines are being built.

The report concludes that "the current pace of transportation improvement . . . is not sufficient to keep pace with even a slow growth in travel demands in most major urban areas."

The study also said poor highway management and land-use planning contribute to the deteriorating state of travel.

It also showed that congestion in seven of the nation's 13 largest cities actually got a bit better. Washington was not one of them.

For commuters, that means more time in the car on choked highways and less time with their families.

The worst part of commuting for some people is how unpredictable it is from day to day.

"On average, it takes me 30 minutes, but sometimes it's 25 or an hour and a half, for no apparent reason," said Sarah Melville, who commutes between Lorton and Alexandria each day. And it's going to get worse for her because her office is moving to Crystal City, a two-mile change that she says will add 10 or 15 minutes to her trip.

"To be honest, I don't see it getting better any time soon," said Melville, who works for PBS. "That is really frustrating. If you want to live near a big city these days, I guess that's what you have to expect."

Ronald F. Kirby, transportation planning director of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, said: "Vehicle miles of travel are growing faster than capacity in almost every metro area in the country. Nationally, we're not adding road capacity at the rate we used to."

Kirby added that the rankings are as much a reflection of population growth as traffic-solving measures. "When you rank areas, those that have been growing the fastest, like ourselves, are going to be higher on the list -- and getting worse."

Maryland Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan said he understands how commuters feel. "I think there is a sense of frustration because we gave up on improving our transportation system for so long, and people got the message that government wasn't prepared to address the problem."

This year's big mover on the national list was Atlanta, which debuted in the "very large" city category at No. 4, just a notch below Washington -- which cut in half the lead of San Francisco, which has the country's second-worst traffic.

Overall, the report offered little solace for congestion-beleaguered Washingtonians.

It found that in 2003, area commuters sat in traffic for 145.5 million hours; tie-ups cost drivers an estimated $2.46 billion, or $577 per commuter; and "rush hour" lasted for fully a third of the day.

The report showed that the Washington area would have the worst congestion in the nation if not for its public transportation systems.

The study is sponsored by the American Road and Transportation Builders Association and the American Public Transportation Association and is based on data compiled by state and federal traffic agencies for 85 cities. Its results are obtained by comparing traffic counts and miles of road lanes to estimate congestion levels.

Mike Lauderdale said the results didn't bother him one bit. Easy enough for him to say -- he's working in Albany, N.Y., after working in the Washington area off and on for the past 30 years.

"I'm within walking distance of where I work, which is not an accident," he said.

Lauderdale, who visits family in the area, said he tells people that "there are two times, as far as traffic" in Washington. "There's rush hour and there's construction."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company