Traffic Cure Worsens the Pain

By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 6, 2008

So much traffic clogs Washington area roads that Cox Communications has to use 20 percent more trucks here to serve the same number of customers as in other regions. Metro has to add an average of 10 buses a year, at $521,980 a pop, just to maintain rush-hour schedules that have slipped because of congestion.

Virginia-based Guernsey Office Products decided to build a $5 million warehouse in Maryland because it was becoming impossible to cross the Potomac River during the workday and meet delivery deadlines.

Owner David Guernsey likens the facility to a $5 million Potomac toll bridge.

"A route that could do 50 deliveries a day all of a sudden was doing 40 deliveries," Guernsey said. "We were in danger of not keeping promises to customers. That's a place you don't go in a business."

It's the price of doing business in one of the most traffic-choked regions in the country, but it makes matters worse. The additional vehicles on the road add to congestion and fuel a cycle that further stresses the region's overtaxed roadways, resulting in even more delays and pollution.

Washingtonians have the dubious honor of having the second-worst commutes in the country, in terms of time spent on the road, after New York, according to data recently released by the Census Bureau. And although the area doesn't have many traditional smokestack industries, it generates an outsize amount of pollution from vehicles.

The region exceeds federal standards for ozone and other air pollutants, especially in "hot spots" of congestion where buses and trucks emit pollution, said Ronald F. Kirby, transportation director for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

"This is the perfect illustration of the cost of congestion," Kirby said. "And those costs are passed on to customers and taxpayers."

Fairfax County public schools, with 1,200 buses driving 18 million miles a year, has one of the largest bus fleets in the nation. The school system adds 20 to 30 buses a year, even during times of flat enrollment, because congestion has added to travel times. Routes that used to take 30 minutes now take 50, said Dean Tisdadt, chief operating officer for the school system.

So bus runs are scheduled earlier and earlier to avoid the commuter rush. That means high school students are being dropped off as early as 6:45 a.m. for classes that start at 7:20 a.m., Tisdadt said, which angers parents and makes for sleepy students.

"The same experience we have as individuals with traffic is the same we have when planning buses," Tisdadt said.

Montgomery County schools face the same challenge. Transportation coordinator John Matthews said some students traveling across the county or to special schools are on buses for as long as two hours a day.

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