Washington suffers from the worst traffic congestion in the nation, with drivers spending more than three days out of every 365 caught in traffic.

Helped along by a relatively robust economy, the Washington region forged well ahead of perennial rivals Chicago and Los Angeles, which ranked second and third in an extensive study conducted annually by a research group at Texas A&M University.

“This is one of those odd times when bad news is good news,” said Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean T. Connaughton. “The reason we have more congestion is that the Washington region has a very strong economy. I go to other parts of the state and they say they have no transportation problems.”

The 74 hours the average commuter is stuck in traffic each years burn 37 gallons of fuel; the average cost per area driver at the pump and in lost wages comes to $1,495. Local drivers travel bumper to bumper more than twice the national average of 34 hours.

“The biggest change in the commute has been all the construction,” said Darryl Colbert, who has driven into the District from Bowie for 20 years. “A good example is Central Avenue. I used to take that to avoid a backup on Route 50, but now they’ve got steel plates there for the Addison Road construction, and that causes a backup because nobody wants to tear their car up.”

There are efforts underway to create some congestion relief — the Intercounty Connector in Maryland, the Beltway high-occupancy toll lanes and the Metro extension in Virginia and several smaller projects — but officials fear that none of it is enough.

Projections by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments suggest that without significant investment in highways and transit, congestion could stifle the region’s desire to grow. By 2030, the regional population is estimated to increase by 1.2 million, newcomers drawn by 874,000 new jobs.

Public transit, one possible source of relief, has its own issues. Washington’s deteriorating Metro system is in the midst of a $5 billion capital improvement effort just to increase safety and bring the system into good repair.

Highway advocates see another bridge across the Potomac as critical to improvement. Transit and smart-growth proponents see developing communities around rail and bus hubs that are near job centers as a better choice.

But the next great transportation project hasn’t made it off the drawing boards, given the dismal funding prospects, and nothing so grand as the $2.4 billion Wilson Bridge replacement is likely to come around again.

The annual Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) study of urban congestion shows that Washington drivers spent an average of 84 hours delayed in traffic in the three years prior to the opening of the new Wilson Bridge. The number has dropped to an average of 73 hours in the past three years.

“The problem with the commute is that it’s just so random,” said Jeff Lancaster, who says he’s never sure what to expect between his home in Annapolis and his job in downtown Washington. “I don’t think it’s changed so much. It’s just the same. ”

‘Smoke and mirrors’

Nationally, the prospects for congestion relief seem bleak as federal and state transportation revenue continue to shrivel, much of the current transportation system has outlived its life span and few bold new highway or transit projects are on the horizon.

The U.S. Chamber of Commercehas estimated that an outlay of $222 billion a year is necessary to maintain the surface transportation system. Two funding proposals under discussion in Congress would spend $35 billion or $55.4 billion a year.

“Members of Congress continue to delay action on a new multi-year bill as their constituents idle each day in mind-numbing traffic congestion,” said Pete Ruane, president of the American Road and Transportation Builders Association. “It’s inexcusable.”

Ruane said robust new investment was needed to revive the 60-year-old interstate system, but he acknowledged that the federal gas tax revenues that built it no longer provide enough money to achieve that.

“Traffic congestion is one of the nation’s very real challenges that can’t be solved by budgetary smoke and mirrors,” he said. “To address the problem, the day is coming soon when Congress will have to take the hard vote on increasing the user fee.”

The federal gas tax, set at 18.4 cents a gallon since 1993, has for generations paid the nation’s transportation bills, but the improvement of gas mileage and introduction of hybrids and electric vehicles has cut into that revenue. Now, highway tolls — as evidenced locally by the ICC, HOT lanes and preliminary approval for Virginia to collect them on Interstate 95 — are being considered as an alternative.

The TTI study said that the annual number of hours wasted in traffic would increase to 77 by 2015 and to 81 by 2020.

“The solution mix may be different for each city, but the one thing they all share in common is urgency,” said Tim Lomax, one of the TTI study’s authors. “If we want a strong economy, doing nothing is not a productive option.”

Engines burn money

The TTI report concludes that congestion cost Americans more than $100 billion in 2010, up from $24 billion in 1982 when calculated in 2011 dollars. Engines idling in traffic burned $1.9 billion gallons of gasoline. The researchers projected that the number would increase to 2.5 billion gallons and delays would cost $133 billion by 2015.

Congestion cost the average commuter $750, up from $351 in 1982. And the average time lost to congestion nationwide was 34 hours, up from 14 hours in 1982. Additional delays would drive the cost to $900 by 2015.

Until last year, TTI researchers used traffic volume data provided by the states to calculate congestion in major urban areas. Now they use data compiled by a private firm, INRIX, that places data-gathering devices on millions of trucks, taxis, fleet vehicles and delivery vans. It also offers an iPhone application that provides users with real-time travel information in return for anonymous tracking of the users’ travel.

The other cities on the top 10 most congested list, and the annual number of hours drivers spend caught in traffic are Chicago (71), Los Angeles (64), Houston (57), New York (54), Baltimore (52), San Francisco (50), Denver (49), Boston (47) and Dallas (45).