- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 8, 2001

The Washington region is rated as the nation's fourth most congested urban area, according to annual rankings released yesterday.

But the average amount of time area residents spend on their daily commutes actually increased from 1998 to 1999, the latest year studied by the Texas Transportation Institute.

Although fourth place is an improvement from some of Washington's previous rankings, the reason seems to be that other cities have become worse faster.

"The amount of extra time you spend in traffic due to traffic congestion went from 45 hours in '98 to 46 hours in '99," said Tim Lomax, a researcher and co-author of the Texas Transportation Institute study.

By "extra time," Mr. Lomax means the amount of wasted time Washington-area motorists spend sitting in stop-and-go traffic instead of getting to a destination at the posted speed limit. The national average is 36 hours.

"One of the things that makes D.C. problematic is the river running down the middle of the urbanized area," Mr. Lomax said. "You have limited crossings. Those bottlenecks in the system make transportation planning much harder to do. The solutions are almost always more expensive than average as well, such as the Wilson Bridge."

Los Angeles retained its role as the nation's most congested city. San Francisco ranked second and Seattle third.

Mr. Lomax said the institute changed its methodology to include a larger land area in its calculations for the Washington region. Under the methodology used in previous years, Washington ranked second. The new methodology shows that Washington was the third most congested from 1994 through 1996 but then improved to fourth.

"The urbanized area is our unit of analysis," Mr. Lomax said. "When that grows, we expand the area that we are covering."

Recent Census Bureau statistics show the Washington region gaining population quickly through the 1990s. The larger number of people using bridges and mass transit in Washington leaves little room for error, Mr. Lomax said.

"It makes those transportation systems really key because you don't have as many of them," he said. "You have to operate those transportation links very efficiently and keep them working as reliably as possible."

The Greater Washington Board of Trade, like the Texas Transportation Institute that conducted the study, recommends more investment in transportation.

"We're just not building the infrastructure that we need," said Bob Grow, the Board of Trade's transportation director. "Look out your windshield as you go to work every day. This shows that the cost per capita of congestion has gone up. It's an aggregation of wasted time, wasted fuel, et cetera."

He attributed Washington's improved rank to the change in the institute's methodology and even more lax transportation policies in other cities.

"Don't be fooled by this," Mr. Grow said. "Things are getting worse. We recommend a balanced transportation system. That means that we need to build the [upper] Potomac River bridge and we need transit. The biggest emphasis has got to be on new roads and bridges."

The Texas Transportation Institute's statistics suggest that traffic is, indeed, getting worse. In recent years, the amount of time Washington motorists spent sitting in traffic has grown by one hour per year, increasing from 25 hours in 1982 to 44 hours two years ago. The data used in the study were based on state highway department reports for 68 urban areas.

Wasted time and fuel cost the nation $78 billion in 1999, the institute said. Washington area motorists spent an average of 40 percent of their time in congested traffic in 1999.

One advantage Washington has over many other cities including Los Angeles and San Francisco is the quality of its public transit system, the institute said.

Washington's Metrorail averages more than 600,000 trips a day, carrying more passengers than Boston's aging T system and the L trains in Chicago. In fact, Metro is second in ridership only to New York's subway system, which carries 1.3 billion riders a year.

Metro hopes to expand its system in order to double bus and rail ridership over the next 25 years. Metro plans to extend its rail system to Georgetown and Washington Dulles International Airport and to add stops on New York Avenue NE and in Prince George's County.

Another study released yesterday by the Washington-based Surface Transportation Policy Project said that traffic would be much worse without Metro. In the average city, the most recent U.S. Census data shows that about 17 percent of the work force does not drive to work. The District is above average on that score, with 23 percent of workers leaving their cars at home.

City officials are encouraging bicycle use as an alternative to cars. Mayor Anthony A. Williams appeared Friday at a Bike-to-Work rally downtown to announce plans for turning Washington into a haven for bicycle commuters and enthusiasts.

He wants to add 50 miles of bike lanes in the next five years and install 500 new bike racks in front of government buildings and shopping centers. One new, seven-mile section of trail will follow the Metro Red Line from Union Station to Silver Spring.

"It's not just a question of new bike projects, it's also a question of incorporating bicycles into all the things we do with buses, Metro and roads in the District," said Jim Sebastian, the city's new bicycle program manager. "It's institutionalizing bicycling into the way we do things in the District."

The city's division of transportation hired Mr. Sebastian last month to work exclusively on promoting bicycling programs in Washington.

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