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A Ranking Writ In Brake Lights: D.C. 2nd in Traffic
Area Nudges Up List as Drivers Spend 60 Hours a Year in Jams

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.

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.

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