Traffic snarls in rush hour getting worse

Motorists: A new study finds that congestion delays in the Baltimore area now exceed the national average.

September 08, 2004|By MICHAEL DRESSER | MICHAEL DRESSER,SUN STAFF

The number of hours Baltimore-area motorists sit in rush-hour traffic jams has increased fivefold over the past 20 years as the region -- a place where traffic once flowed relatively smoothly -- has become a typically congested urban area.

A study released yesterday by the Texas Transportation Institute found that since 1982, congestion in Baltimore has grown so much that commuter delays now exceed the national average.

Nationally, the average number of hours a commuter loses to "peak period" traffic jams has risen from 16 in 1982 to 46 in 2002. In Baltimore, where commuters could expect to sit in rush-hour traffic nine hours a year two decades ago, the number has soared to 48.

"The demand for travel is growing faster than the transportation system has grown," Maryland Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan, an advocate of increased highway spending, said yesterday.

"We need to have a balanced transportation system that recognizes that 90 percent of people travel in their personal automobiles and that demand is growing," he said.

The Baltimore figures come as part of a national report by the Texas research institute that concluded that "American cities are falling even further behind with each passing year" in addressing traffic congestion.

The report said the annual national cost of traffic delays has grown to $63 billion -- up from $14 billion in 1982. It estimated that Americans wasted 5.7 billion gallons of gasoline idling in traffic jams in 2002, the last year for which figures were available.

The Urban Mobility Report studied traffic patterns in 85 metropolitan areas around the country. It calculated rush-hour travel delays by considering the time taken to commute during peak hours and comparing it with travel at times when the roads were not congested.

The study found that the worst delays still occur in the Los Angeles area, where commuters can expect to spend 93 hours a year stuck in rush-hour traffic. The Washington area was third at 67 hours.

Delays in the Baltimore area, which once lagged behind cities of comparable population, now closely reflect its size.

In 1982, the region ranked 31st in peak-period traffic delays despite an 18th-place ranking in population, according to the study. Twenty years later, it ranks 17th in population and 16th in rush-hour congestion.

Flanagan said that the congestion, in part, reflects Maryland's strong economy. "More people going to work means more traffic at peak hours," he said.

David Schrank, a co-author of the study, agreed. "The economy is really a driving force behind these numbers," he said.

Schrank said highway expansion can slow the growth of congestion, but warned there is no "silver bullet" to relieve traffic delays. He said a lack of money for capital projects and "not in my back yard" sentiments have made it increasingly difficult to build new highways.

Daniel Pontious, regional policy director for the Citizens Planning and Housing Association, said one reason for increasing congestion in Baltimore is a lack of public transportation resources. "In a lot of corridors, people don't have a lot of choices" besides driving, he said.

The Texas Transportation Institute is an affiliate of the Texas A&M University system and is the official research arm of that state's transportation agency. Its mobility study did not explore all the reasons for Baltimore's increased congestion, but found that the region's investment in certain traffic improvements has lagged behind other places.

The Baltimore region ranked 23rd in its 2002 spending on what the institute called "operational treatment" of traffic flow -- efforts such as faster responses to accidents and synchronization of traffic signals.

To read the full report, go to baltimoresun.com/commute.

Congestion leaders

These are the metropolitan areas where rush-hour motorists spend the most time stuck in traffic, followed by the average number of hours spent in jams in 2002.

1. Los Angeles 93

2. San Francisco 73

3. Washington, D.C. 67

4. Dallas-Fort Worth 61

5. Atlanta 60

16. Baltimore 48

SOURCE: Texas Transportation Institute

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