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Area Traffic Stuck in a Costly Jam

By Alice Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 10, 1996; Page A01

Washington area residents waste 58 hours of time and 60 gallons of gasoline a year sitting on traffic-clogged roads, making the hidden cost of gridlock higher here than anywhere else in the nation, according to a federal study released yesterday.

This marks the first time that the annual study has ranked Washington No. 1 in the per-capita cost of wasted fuel and time as people sit in traffic. The area ranks second to the San Bernardino/Riverside, Calif., area when the cost of congestion is calculated per motorist, according to the study, an assessment of 50 urban areas conducted each year by the Texas Transportation Institute for the Federal Highway Administration.

In terms of congestion, measured by the amount of roadway available to each motorist, Washington ranked second to the Los Angeles area for the second year running. But the study shows that while traffic congestion has stabilized in the Los Angeles area, it is worsening here.

The institute came up with a figure of $820 a year for the per-capita cost of traffic jams on Washington area roads. About 90 percent of that figure represents the cost in wasted time.

The study estimated the cost of being delayed in traffic at $10.75 per hour per person in every region of the country, based on surveys of what motorists think their time is worth. The hourly figure has been used by researchers for the last 10 years and is adjusted yearly for inflation.

Washington area motorists on average waste about 70 hours a year in traffic, according to the study--almost two full weeks of work for many people.

As for fuel, local motorists spend almost a quart of gas a day sitting in traffic jams, or about 35 cents a day, the study said. The cost per resident comes to about 15 cents a day.

The Washington area's abysmal showing in the latest study came as no surprise to most area transportation specialists, who warned that the trend is toward even worse congestion.

"We've been watching this tidal wave for a long time, and I hope that studies like this will convince elected politicians and policymakers that we can't wait any longer to make the investments we need to make in transportation," said Lon Anderson, spokesman for the American Automobile Association's Potomac branch.

Regional projections are that traffic will increase by more than 70 percent in the next 25 years. Yet there are funds available to increase highway capacity by less than 25 percent.

"We can't get a consensus on where to put roads," said Ron Kirby, the regional transportation board's chief planner. "It's a very tough sell to put new highways on new right of way."

"Demographics have had an enormous effect," Anderson said. "What is driving this is [that] our suburbs, to maintain their high quality of services, have had two choices--property taxes off the charts or attract a lot more new business. . . . [The latter] has had a cost. It has meant that we now see that three out of four new jobs are in the suburbs."

As more and more people commute from suburb to suburb, the old transportation network meant to get people into Washington no longer works, planners say.

Some highway advocates say that the only way to build needed transportation capacity, either in roads or transit, is to increase gas taxes, an unpopular notion in many quarters.

"We say we can't afford a nickle or a dime more on the gas tax, and yet, the average [Washington area] motorist is paying almost a thousand dollars in lost time and fuel because of congestion," said Robert Chase, who heads the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, a lobbying group for highway construction.

Commuter Mike Russell, 55, of Sterling, said he lives the results of the Texas study every workday as he makes his way to the West Falls Church Metrorail station, a 16-mile trip that takes him an hour. The 12-mile trip by Metro to his office in downtown Washington takes 20 minutes.

"In the morning, on several occasions, it's taken me a half-hour to go four miles from home to the nearest main intersection," said Russell, a member of Vice President Gore's staff.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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