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Annual report of real-time traffic data ranks D.C. area congestion fourth

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 7, 2011; 9:24 PM

The misery of the commute is expressed with surgical precision in the latest data that show just how congested the Washington region has become: 63 minutes lost on Interstate 95 in Virginia; 48 minutes wasted on the Beltway's outer loop in Montgomery County; 15 minutes stuck on the George Washington Parkway near Chain Bridge.

They are numbers drawn from reality - data fed back from GPS units caught in traffic - and not the projections of traffic flow patterns on which some studies rely.

"They've got detail here that we've never had before," said Ron Kirby, transportation director for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. "They've got a real good data source that provides 24/7 information."

The data show that Washington is the fourth-most-congested area in the nation, surpassed only by three far larger metropolitan areas: Los Angeles, New York and Chicago.

The annual report by INRIX, a private firm that monitors traffic nationwide for urban planners and traffic reports, has no surprises for those who drive regularly in the region, but it will intrigue those who like an index of their frustration.

The 24 miles of Interstate 95 south of I-395 is the most congested road in the region, an 86-minute drive during the afternoon rush that normally would take just 23 minutes. The Capital Beltway through Montgomery ranks second and third - westbound in the morning and eastbound in the evening - as people commute to and from jobs in Virginia.

Interstate 66 captures the top two spots for worst bottlenecks - westbound in Arlington county and eastbound in Fairfax County- followed by northbound I-395 in Arlington. Maryland breaks into the top five bottlenecks with the nearly perpetual Beltway crawl at I-270 and similar Beltway problems at Wisconsin Avenue.

Frustrating though they might be, only two Washington backups (I-95 south and the Montgomery Beltway) break into the top 25 ranking nationally. New York's Cross Bronx Expressway is the worst in the congestion top 10, a list dominated by the Big Apple (3) and Los Angeles (5). Chicago's Dan Ryan Expressway and Pittsburgh's Penn Lincoln Parkway rounded out the top 10.

"The interesting thing is that D.C. is getting to be a closer fourth to Chicago," said Rick Schuman, who produced the INRIX report based on feedback collected from 1.5 million GPS devices installed in trucks and fleet vehicles.

That could be more a factor of reduced congestion in Chicago than a significant increase in Washington. The local economy suffered less from the recession and rebounded sooner than other major metropolitan areas.

Schuman said that the 100 largest cities lost a total of more than 5 million jobs, and traffic volume dropped when those people stopped going to work. Although those cities suffered an average 5.8 percent job loss, he said the Washington region lost just 0.2 percent.

With urban areas continuing to grow steadily, a return to 2007-level employment could result in worse congestion, particularly because the federal transportation funding bill has been stalled in Congress for almost two years. Congress routinely provides long-term transportation funding for five- or six-year periods so that state and local planners can tackle major construction or renovation projects without fear that money will run out.

At a time when states and cities are facing serious budget issues and are saddled with deteriorating roads, bridges and transit infrastructure, uncertainty on the federal front could stall plans for transit or highway projects.

"If we get the jobs we want, we're going to seriously overload the transportation network," Schuman said.

Bob Chase of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance said the new data show that the region already has waited too long to enact a comprehensive transportation plan.

"It demonstrates the price that you pay for not building decades ago to support the land use that was being planned," he said. "We continue to approve the land-use portion of it, but we're not building the transportation part of it that's needed. We are forcing more traffic into already congested corridors."

Stewart Schwartz, director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, said he expects the Dulles Metrorail line, now under construction, to relieve some of the congestion on I-66.

Both bus lines and Virginia Railway Express commuter train service should be included in plans to address the problems, he said. "Simply widening the highways without addressing land use and transit issues will prove that those new lanes will just fill up," Schwartz said. "We should look for underlying causes and solutions that address those causes rather than just widen highways."

Schwartz said creation of more jobs and housing in eastern Montgomery County and in Prince George's County would help address the "imbalance" which currently draws thousands of commuters from Maryland into Northern Virginia.

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