Washington area drivers continue to face the second-worst congestion in the country, spending an average of 76 hours a year stuck in tie-ups, but traffic is growing more slowly than it did earlier this decade, according to a national study released yesterday.

For the fifth consecutive year, the annual report by the Texas Transportation Institute found that only Los Angeles suffers more severe congestion than Washington, as measured by miles traveled and total miles of road. The latest analysis, however, shows that the San Francisco area has tied Washington for the silver-medal position.

The federally funded study at Texas A&M University reported that congestion on Washington area roads increased by less than 1 percent between 1995 and 1997, the most recent year for which data are available and the basis for all the report's findings. By contrast, congestion increased by 9 percent from 1990 to 1995.

Tim Lomax, one of the report's two authors, said traffic may be worsening in portions of the Washington region even though the overall average has leveled off. He noted the institute's practice of evaluating a larger area each year as development expands outward, with the result that newer, uncongested suburbs may offset more central suburbs with mounting traffic.

Across the country, roads grew increasingly congested and the price to drivers continued to rise, reaching $72 billion a year, the report said. That figure includes the cost of gas and the value that the institute placed on wasted time.

"It is the combination of good economic times, the expansion of the job market and lack of investment in the transportation system," Lomax said.

Those conclusions were included in an analysis of 68 urban areas that found the annual cost of traffic congestion exceeds the average bill for auto insurance in one-third of American cities. Moreover, drivers in many of the country's largest metropolitan areas now spend half as much time stewing in traffic as they spend on vacation, the study said.

Congestion in the Washington area exacted a cost of $1,260 in 1997 for every man, woman and child in the region--$35 more than a year earlier. The 76 hours a year spent sitting in traffic is unchanged from last year's report. By that measure, Washington also ranks second behind Los Angeles.

The institute gauged traffic by a range of standards, all of which showed Washington to be among the most burdened metropolitan areas. Rush-hour travel in the region takes about 41 percent longer than off-peak driving, a figure exceeded only by Los Angeles, Seattle and San Francisco. That figure remained constant from the previous year.

The report's release has become an annual ritual anxiously awaited by a range of business, transportation and environmental groups, which fired off a flurry of statements and news releases yesterday citing the findings to promote their policy agendas.

The Greater Washington Board of Trade heralded the annual report card as proof that the region urgently needs to build a series of parkways outside the Capital Beltway and more Potomac River crossings. Those proposals were unveiled by a coalition of business groups last month.

"It's just a painfully predictable ranking. Fortunately, we're not number one," said Robert T. Grow, the board's transportation director. "The only way we're going to shift down in the ranking is if we move forward with the alternatives we recently released."

But Barbara McCann, of the Surface Transportation Policy Project, which advocates slower growth, increased transit and more comprehensive land-use planning, said her group's evaluation of the Texas institute findings showed that building more roads would not alleviate congestion. After analyzing a draft of the report, McCann's group concluded that much of the Washington region's worsening traffic has occurred because people drive more--not because population is growing. Although the area's population grew 28 percent between 1982 and 1997, the traffic feels as if the number of people rocketed by 77 percent, the group determined.

"Sprawl-induced driving is by far and away the main culprit," McCann said.

Heavy Traffic

A look at several traffic indexes shows the severity of traffic woes for Washington.

1997 Road congestion index

Washington traffic ranks second only to Los Angeles in terms of congestion. The congestion index is computed using miles traveled and miles available for travel.

Los Angeles 1.51

Washington, D.C. -- Md. -- Va. 1.33

San Francisco -- Oakland 1.33

Chicago -- Northwestern Ind. 1.28

Seattle -- Everett, Wash. 1.26

1997 Travel rate index

The travel rate index compares how long it takes to travel a distance in rush hour vs. off-peak hours. Rush-hour traffic in the Washington area takes roughly 41 percent longer than non-peak driving, earning a fourth place ranking in the country.

Los Angeles 1.51

Seattle -- Everett, Wash. 1.43

San Francisco -- Oakland 1.42

Washington, D.C. -- Md. -- Va. 1.41

Chicago -- Northwestern Ind. 1.37

Annual delay per driver

Local drivers spend an average of 76 hours a year stuck in traffic. The problem has not worsened since it was last measured, but the average in 68 other urban areas is only 34 hours.

Year Hours

1982 30

1986 45

1990 58

1992 60

1995 70

1996 76

1997 76

SOURCE: Texas Transportation Institute