Traffic Eases Nationwide -- Except in D.C., Study Finds
By Ashley Halsey III
Wednesday, July 8, 2009
Although traffic has lightened up a tad in almost every other major metropolitan area in the nation, the misery index in the Washington area has increased, according to the annual national traffic study released today by the Texas Transportation Institute.
Washington continues to rank second to Los Angeles in auto congestion, which causes the average driver on the area's highways and byways to waste about 62 hours a year crawling through traffic, according to the study, which used data from 2007.
"Some of that is related to the good general economy in Washington, with the expansion of government and government services," said Tim Lomax, a research engineer for the institute and co-author of the study.
The study is the latest validation of the Washington area's traffic problems and raised questions about whether the region's current political and economic focus will work. The area has initiated some of the most expensive and controversial road projects in its history, including the new Springfield interchange, the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge, the HOT lanes on the Capital Beltway in Virginia, the planned widening of Interstate 66 in Virginia and the Intercounty Connector being built in Maryland.
Experts agree that no single approach -- building more roads or commuter rail lines -- will reverse the trend. They say it will require political courage to do the unpopular and a public willingness to sacrifice a little and, perhaps, pay more.
"The best solutions are going to be those in which actions by transportation agencies are complemented by businesses, manufacturers and commuters," Lomax said. "The problem is far too big for transportation agencies alone to address it adequately."
Washington area drivers wasted an additional three hours in the car compared with the previous year, the study found. Houston and Philadelphia, which remained the same, were the only other major metropolitan areas where traffic did not improve.
Factoring in the price of gas and lost productivity, Lomax's study concludes that sitting in traffic cost the Washington area almost $2.8 billion in 2007. Ninety million gallons of gas and 133 million hours went to waste.
The annual cost nationally was $87.2 billion, with 2.8 billion gallons of gas wasted, and people spent 4.2 billion hours in traffic purgatory.
Lomax used Federal Highway Administration data that included information gathered through 24-hour monitoring of highway systems.
The study would appear to conflict with a regional report last year, done through the use of 80,000 aerial photos, which showed that congestion had eased somewhat since 2005.
"They were seeing the beginnings of the recession," said Ron Kirby, transportation planning director for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, which conducted the regional study.
"Our work is a bit more recent, in 2008, and the recession was more thoroughly underway. But I don't take issue with the rankings. Whether we're second to Los Angeles, or third or fourth, we're right up there with the worst."
Kirby and Lomax agreed that once the economy picks up, so will traffic congestion.
"The solution isn't to have high unemployment forever," Lomax said.
The federal stimulus act gives Washington, Maryland and Virginia a boost of $1.3 billion in transportation funding, which will come to the region in the form of orange traffic cones as scores of major arteries are overhauled.
Sometimes something as simple as doubling the number of lanes on an off-ramp can eliminate a bottleneck backing traffic up on a major highway, Kirby said, pointing to recent improvements on a Beltway off-ramp near the American Legion Bridge.
But bigger changes bring greater results. For example, Washington commuters often travel east to west, with thousands of drivers from Maryland heading to jobs along the Dulles corridor and in Tysons Corner that were developed a generation after the housing was built to the east. Relocating people where the jobs are, or creating jobs where the people are, would alleviate congestion.
"We can't resolve that by building more [highway] capacity so that more people can commute from east to west," Kirby said.
Another congestion reliever is "pricing" the commute, Kirby said. Already planned for the Intercounty Connector, Shirley Highway and the Dulles Toll Road, this system would allow variable tolls to skyrocket in special high-speed lanes when congestion builds, encouraging people to avoid the expensive commuting hours.
Combine that with plans to extend Metrorail to Dulles and to build a Purple Line north of the city, and congestion could drop another notch. Kirby would like to see high-quality bus service using the new high-speed lanes. Traffic also could be eased if jobs were relocated near outlying Metro stops so that people could reverse commute from the District to the suburbs.
"The region's doing a good job when it comes to providing alternatives," said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. "We need to do more of it."