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A Ranking Writ In Brake Lights: D.C. 2nd in Traffic
Overall, the study found a nation stuck in traffic jams. "Congestion . . . is getting worse in regions of all sizes," the study states, and it reports staggering figures at the national level: 4.2 billion hours of delays, up from 4 billion in 2004; 2.9 billion gallons of wasted fuel; and an annual cost of $710 per traveler, up from an inflation-adjusted $260 in 1982.
And traffic costs come in forms other than fuel.
Jeremy Scott, 31, a health-care lobbyist, said he, his wife and 2-year-old just moved from Woodbridge to Arlington County because the commute to the District -- which could take two hours on days when the couple couldn't carpool in high-occupancy vehicle lanes -- was too much to bear.
Now, "we also are paying through the nose for our [new] house," said Scott, whose new commute takes 20 minutes. "That's the trade-off."
Perhaps most discouragingly for the area, many of the solutions suggested in the report -- using mass transit and HOV lanes, telecommuting, building new roads and relieving choke points -- are already being done. Even with a new Woodrow Wilson Bridge and Springfield interchange and plans to expand Metrorail in Northern Virginia and build an 18-mile highway across the Maryland suburbs, there are simply too many people to move.
"We're not even close to keeping up, much less catching up," said Alan E. Pisarski, a traffic analyst from Fairfax County who has authored the "Commuting in America" series. "We've just got such a dramatic backlog of work to be done."
Good news was hard to find in the report. Even Atlanta's apparent improvement in certain categories isn't cause for celebration, experts said. Yearly congestion in the Georgia metropolis dropped from a revised 73 hours to 60 hours per traveler between 2000 and 2005. Although Lomax said that drop was partly due to an improved response to stalled vehicles and other blockages, experts cautioned that the figures are probably due to the expanding geography of the region into more rural areas and a rapid growth in population, both of which would water down per-capita averages.
"I wouldn't be looking to Atlanta as a model of the solution," Pisarski said.
The study is sponsored by the American Public Transportation Association, the American Road and Transportation Builders Association and the University Transportation Center for Mobility and is based on data on 437 urban areas compiled by state and federal traffic agencies. It compares traffic counts and miles of road lanes to estimate congestion levels.
This year's report employs a number of methodological changes and includes data from more localities and revised population estimates. For the Washington region, it also incorporates new data from the Virginia Department of Transportation and the Maryland State Highway Administration, Lomax said.
Ronald F. Kirby, director of transportation planning at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, said he hesitated to place too much weight on Washington's shifting rank given the changes in technique by the study's authors.
"I guess my question would be: Is the change in ranking real or a result of the different methodology?" Kirby said.
Kirby, whose organization has released a regional report based on aerial photographs since 1993, said that Washington congestion is worsening overall but that it is very time- and location-specific and has improved in some spots.
There is one cause for hope: Washington is still far from catching traffic champ Los Angeles, where drivers spend a whopping 72 hours a year mired in delays.