- Associated Press - Friday, June 26, 2015

PHOENIX (AP) - Despite the ubiquitous feelings of misery that accompany traffic jams on Phoenix-area freeways, drivers in Arizona cities actually face commutes on par with other major metropolitan areas on their way to work, according to an Associated Press analysis of federal data.

It takes drivers about 24.8 minutes to travel to work in Phoenix, Scottsdale and Mesa, and 23.8 minutes in Tucson, the AP analysis of 2013 Census data found. The times straddle the national average of 24.4 minutes.

But projected growth and a lack of state funding could create more headaches for commuters.

Drivers could see longer commute times over the next five years as Arizona’s population increases by an estimated 320,000, according to ESRI, a geographic information systems company.

To accommodate the growing population, local governments and the Arizona Department of Transportation are working on projects such as adding another lane on the Loop 101 from Scottsdale to Tempe, and rebuilding the Ina Road interchange along Interstate 10 in Tucson.

The commute in the metro Phoenix area is marked by a sprawling web of freeways that sometimes can create long trips to and from work, especially when accidents clog the roads. But on average, the Phoenix commute is comparable to similar-sized cities. For example, drivers in the Seattle-Tacoma metro area face an average commute time of 26.5 minutes.

Still, transit officials say there’s only so much they can do when money is tight.

Arizona’s gas tax has remained at 18 cents a gallon since it was first implemented in 1991 while the state Legislature has often diverted funding away from road repair and maintenance to support other programs such as the Arizona Department of Public Safety.

A recent study by the Arizona Society of Civil Engineers found more than 90 percent of state highways are acceptably maintained, but stressed funding hasn’t kept up with projected growth. The study found the state will need to invest a minimum of $24 billion over the next 25 years to meet commuters’ needs.

“It’s like ignoring a leaky roof. You can let it leak for a while but eventually the roof collapses, which can be a much more expensive fix,” said Mike Worlton, committee chair with the Arizona Society of Civil Engineers.

In Phoenix metro, the Maricopa Association of Governments and the Arizona Department of Transportation are searching for alternatives to adding new lanes by developing new technologies to better inform commuters, said Eric Anderson, transit director at Maricopa Association of Governments.

The two companies are working together to produce a traffic management system that uses mobile apps and digital message boards to let commuters know the best places to enter highways and avoid traffic, he said.

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