A Ranking Writ In Brake Lights: D.C. 2nd in Traffic

By Jonathan Mummolo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The spirit-sapping, schedule-scuttling congestion of the Washington area has grown so severe that the region is now in a tie for the second-worst traffic in the nation, a notch higher on an ignominious chart no city aims to top. Only drivers in freeway-filled Los Angeles endure rush-hour delays more brutal than Washingtonians, according to a national study released yesterday.

Washington and Atlanta pulled into a second-place tie with the San Francisco-Oakland region, which has held second place for years, according to a report on 2005 conditions by the Texas Transportation Institute. Drivers in all three areas sit in gridlock for an average of 60 hours a year, equivalent to a week and a half of work -- or vacation.

"We're the world's capital, with world-class gridlock," said John B. Townsend II, public and government affairs manager for AAA Mid-Atlantic.

The numbers for Washington area drivers are cringe-worthy: They sat through more than 127 million hours of delays at a cost of $1,094 per rush-hour traveler. They wasted nearly 91 million gallons of fuel. A projected 218 lane miles or 74 million transit trips would need to be added each year just to maintain current congestion levels.

"You feel helpless," said Robert Bisi, 37, who moved to Virginia 12 years ago from another traffic capital, the San Francisco area, and now drives between Rosslyn and his job at a nonprofit in downtown Washington. "It's very stressful. You can see people doing stupid things because they're getting frustrated. . . . I've seen the traffic here just steadily get worse. It very much reminds me" of California.

Although changes in the report's methodology resulted in Washingtonians spending fewer hours stuck in congestion than in previous studies, things are most assuredly not improving, the authors cautioned.

On the contrary, the new analysis shows a clearly worsening picture, with the area's delay figures and national rank climbing steadily since the report first came out in 1984. A generation ago, Washington area drivers sat through a paltry 16 hours of congestion, placing it at a perfectly respectable 18th in the nation. By 1985, the region had cracked the top 10, and by 1994 it was in the top five.

The Washington region is "afflicted with economic prosperity," said study co-author Timothy J. Lomax. "Booming economies almost always see rapid growth and congestion. . . . It's a lot easier to put up an office building or a subdivision or a shopping center than it is to put in the transportation system needed to serve all that travel."

Although increasingly difficult to thwart, the causes of congestion are not mysterious. The report cites large populations, shipping demands, slow construction of roads and transit and events such as crashes, breakdowns and weather that cause unpredictable delays.

Lomax said the delay figures account for all rush-hour travelers -- whether they are riding their bikes to the corner store or sitting in a bumper-to-bumper nightmare on the way to the office -- meaning that many area drivers easily exceed the 60-hour average.

The stress from such treks can sometimes get the best of people, such as Christi Bristol, a manager at a health insurance company, who said her commute to Washington from Laurel takes an hour and 10 minutes on average.

"Periodically, I find myself saying things I wouldn't normally say to the car in front of me," she said.

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