Region's Traffic: From Bad To Worse

Vehicles crawl into the District from I-395 yesterday. Traffic flow is deteriorating across the region, a study says.
Vehicles crawl into the District from I-395 yesterday. Traffic flow is deteriorating across the region, a study says. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
By Steven Ginsberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 16, 2006

Highway congestion has grown so severe that virtually all of the Washington region's main commuter routes are chronically clogged and unable to move motorists efficiently, according to a regional study released yesterday.

Drivers on some highways designed for mile-a-minute travel are lucky to make five miles in an hour. Freeways that were manageable three years ago, such as the Dulles Toll Road, are now bumper-to-bumper at peak times. Congestion on some highways has doubled in three years, when the last study was released.

At the worst hour, between 4:30 and 5:30 p.m. weekdays, a quarter of all freeway lanes in the Washington region are completely congested.

Sprinkled into this snapshot of a region traffic-choked at nearly every turn are a handful of success stories. An added carpool lane on Route 50 in Maryland has improved the morning rush, and revamped interchanges in Tysons Corner and Springfield have eased tie-ups on the Capital Beltway.

Nonetheless, the picture from the region's roads is one of sustained misery, where one route after another is filling up ever faster with traffic.

"Growth in traffic is outpacing growth in capacity, and that's the continuing story here, unfortunately," said Ronald F. Kirby, transportation planning director for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, which conducted the study. "Facilities that were adequate just a few years ago just are not sufficient to handle current levels of traffic."

The report, which the council publishes every three years, provides the most definitive look at traffic in the region. The council took 80,000 photos from the sky last spring, capturing every section of highway, measured from interchange to interchange, of the region's major commuter routes a minimum of 12 times. Congestion was determined by measuring how many cars were on the roads during the morning and evening rushes, between 6 and 9 a.m. and 4:30 and 7:30 p.m.

The study's detailed analysis differentiates it from an annual report done by the Texas Transportation Institute, which ranks the traffic and congestion of different regions. Washington holds a firm grip on having the third-worst traffic in the nation, according to that study.

The report comes at a time when leaders across the region are debating whether to dedicate more money for transportation improvements. The Virginia General Assembly is locked in a fight over whether to raise taxes to generate nearly $1 billion a year for traffic relief or to rely on new fees and state surpluses to raise a lesser amount.

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), who supports the tax increases, has also proposed changes in land-use planning to reduce traffic problems. Regional leaders are also debating whether to guarantee a source of revenue for Metro transit.

Transportation experts said they knew the region's traffic was bad -- but not this bad.

"It's even worse than what we would have expected," said John Townsend, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. "This is a template to know where the problems are. For political leaders to have this report and do nothing is akin to doing nothing while Rome burns."

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