Drivers say Washington region's traffic has gone from bad to worse

By Ashley Halsey III and Jennifer Agiesta
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, April 12, 2010; A01

Most people say traffic has gone from bad to worse in the Washington region, which perennially ranks as one of the most congested in the nation, with more than a quarter of workers occasionally skipping their commute entirely and dialing in from home, according to a new poll by The Washington Post.

Traffic congestion has become a form of personal purgatory for the million and a half regional residents who commute to work every day, each spending an estimated 62 hours a year battling heavy traffic. Sixty percent of people surveyed say traffic has grown worse in the past five years.

A sizable number of those polled say they are taking steps to avoid a difficult commute. For IT consultant Rob Cosgrove, 46, of Leesburg, telecommuting offers "a little bit of relief" from his daily slog to his office in Crystal City. Michelle Padfield, 34, of Bowie dials into her job with the federal government one day every other week, "mostly for the convenience," she says, but "I'm able to get more work done at home than I am in the office. There are less interruptions."

Overall, among those employed outside the home, 28 percent have decided to bypass the gridlock by working remotely, and the same amount report that they have moved closer to work to ease their commutes. About four in 10 people who telecommute say they do so at least once a week.

Not everyone has the option to work at home using a computer, and the poll shows big income differences among those who have the option to telecommute and those who don't.

Nearly half of workers from families who make $150,000 or more each year say they've telecommuted, compared with 10 percent of those from households with incomes of less than $50,000. There is also a big racial gap among those who telecommute, but it's largely bridged when income is taken into account: Whites and nonwhites in households making at least $50,000 are about equally likely to say they've dialed in for work.

But with a fast-growing population that remains largely dependent on cars, the poll shows that throughout the Washington region, plenty of highway headaches remain.

George Katsotis knows where and when to find them. His commute from Rockville to Dupont Circle is 30 minutes at sunrise and more than double that if he leaves at 8 a.m.

"New York Avenue coming out of D.C. is a parking lot all the way to 295 between 4 and 6 o'clock" in the evening, said Katsotis, 26, a salesman who spends much of his day behind the wheel. "Of course, 295 is a parking lot then, too. Now, 270, if it's already 3:30, don't even bother with it until 7. I was out at Tysons Corner the other day, and it was so bad that I just went to Starbucks and worked on my laptop."

'Absolute gridlock'

About six in 10 of those polled say they get around by car "nearly all the time," and most area commuters drive solo to work. About 20 percent take some form of public transit. Those who commute from the suburbs to the District are more apt to use Metrorail as their primary mode of commuting.

Most commuters say they spend more than 30 minutes a day heading into work, with the average commute coming in at 35 minutes. Many face longer travel times, however, with 16 percent reporting their daily trip to work consumes an hour or more.

In finding ways to minimize commute times, the poll suggests there may be an incentive to getting in the car rather than on the train. Those who drive spend a bit less time traveling to work (33 minutes on average) than their public-transit-riding counterparts (44 minutes).

But most drivers do not have it easy. Close to half of drivers say they find themselves stuck in traffic daily or several times a week. More in Maryland and Virginia say they face frequent traffic jams than do those who live in Washington. Commuters face some of the most difficult slogs, and 55 percent say they hit traffic jams at least weekly, 23 percent every day.

"The Dulles connector road is a nightmare," said Sarah Simmons Swanson, 35, who lives in the District and works in Reston. "Some nights it will take 45 minutes, but the other night it took two hours."

"Nothing is less than an hour," said Dorothy Howe, 63, of Silver Spring, who abandoned her car for a MARC train to Union Station. "I have tried many different ways. It's gridlock, absolute gridlock."

A preference for tolls

Paying for construction to ease gridlock is a critical issue as the Highway Trust Fund that traditionally funded those projects is short on cash and Congress wrestles with the proposition of increasing the tax on gasoline.

The poll finds an even divide on whether gasoline taxes should be increased, a shift from 2005, when a slim majority supported such an increase. In Virginia, where the gas tax was a major issue in last year's gubernatorial contest, a narrow majority supports an increase in the gas tax, Marylanders tilt against it and District residents are split evenly.

More area residents see tolls as the better way to pay for highways than raising taxes, although the percentage saying tolls are the better option has dropped to 52 percent from 60 five years ago. Perhaps a sign of the increased pressures on residents' wallets since 2005, 13 percent now say neither taxes nor tolls are acceptable, up from 7 percent in 2005. Those with lower household incomes are more apt to favor tolls than those with higher incomes.

"There's no way they should bump up any taxes, especially in this economy," Swanson said. "Raising the gas tax is a terrible idea."

Most residents are supportive of tolls that charge drivers different amounts based on when or how they are using the roads. Six in 10 say they support opening up HOV lanes to solo drivers who pay an extra toll, and 53 percent support adjustable toll rates that charge more to drivers traveling at peak times than off peak. Support for both measures is about the same as in 2005.

The adjustable tolls -- aimed at spreading out the flow of traffic -- prompt stronger opinions among area residents: 27 percent strongly oppose them and 25 percent strongly support them, with strong opposition peaking among African Americans (37 percent strongly oppose them).

The good news from area drivers is nuanced in the poll results. Although people overwhelmingly think things are getting worse, when compared to responses in the 2005 poll, there has been a significant drop in the number who say they are "much worse."

With the area's population expanding at a rapid pace, 72 percent who say congestion has gotten worse blame it on too many cars, and 19 percent pointed fingers at highway construction.

"People may look at it and say, 'Oh, it's construction,' " Swanson said. "But it's congestion. It's not just construction."

Katsotis, who lived in Frederick County before moving to Rockville, said I-270 "wasn't equipped to handle more cars, but they let 50,000 homes be built up in Frederick."

"It's a Catch-22," he said. "I know they have to build the houses first so they have the [tax revenue] to build the roads and other amenities."

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