Traffic Eases Nationwide, but Not in Washington Area

Commuters clogged eastbound Interstate 66 near the Vienna Metro stop during a morning rush hour earlier this year.
Commuters clogged eastbound Interstate 66 near the Vienna Metro stop during a morning rush hour earlier this year. (By Tracy A Woodward -- The Washington Post)
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By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Although traffic has lightened up a tad in almost every other major metropolitan area in the nation, the misery index in the Washington area has increased, according to the annual national traffic study released today by the Texas Transportation Institute.

Washington continues to rank second to Los Angeles in auto congestion, which causes the average driver on the area's highways and byways to waste about 62 hours a year crawling through traffic, according to the study, which used data from 2007.

"Some of that is related to the good general economy in Washington, with the expansion of government and government services," said Tim Lomax, a research engineer for the institute and co-author of the study.

The study is the latest validation of the Washington area's traffic problems and raised questions about whether the region's current political and economic focus will work. The area has initiated some of the most expensive and controversial road projects in its history, including the new Springfield interchange, the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge, the HOT lanes on the Capital Beltway in Virginia, the planned widening of Interstate 66 in Virginia and the Intercounty Connector being built in Maryland.

Experts agree that no single approach -- building more roads or commuter rail lines -- will reverse the trend. They say it will require political courage to do the unpopular and a public willingness to sacrifice a little and, perhaps, pay more.

"The best solutions are going to be those in which actions by transportation agencies are complemented by businesses, manufacturers and commuters," Lomax said. "The problem is far too big for transportation agencies alone to address it adequately."

Washington area drivers wasted an additional three hours in the car compared with the previous year, the study found. Houston and Philadelphia, which remained the same, were the only other major metropolitan areas where traffic did not improve.

Factoring in the price of gas and lost productivity, Lomax's study concludes that sitting in traffic cost the Washington area almost $2.8 billion in 2007. Ninety million gallons of gas and 133 million hours went to waste.

The annual cost nationally was $87.2 billion, with 2.8 billion gallons of gas wasted, and people spent 4.2 billion hours in traffic purgatory.

Lomax used Federal Highway Administration data that included information gathered through 24-hour monitoring of highway systems.

The study would appear to conflict with a regional report last year, done through the use of 80,000 aerial photos, which showed that congestion had eased somewhat since 2005.

"They were seeing the beginnings of the recession," said Ron Kirby, transportation planning director for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, which conducted the regional study.

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