- The Washington Times - Friday, June 28, 2002

It was timely that the 2002 Mobility Report (https://mobility.tamu.edu/ums/) came out the week I was driving cross-country with five persons in a very packed minivan.

The 19 years of data in the Urban Mobility Study are used to identify trends and examine issues related to urban traffic congestion.

The fact that my van's air conditioning in 90-degree weather kept grinding to a halt from Virginia to Illinois won't affect my position on this report from the Texas Transportation Institute. But the marketing emphasis in Gary, Ind., highway billboards on strip joints and fast-food restaurants left an impression upon me that the folks who live in Middle America don't react to political pressure the way residents and politicians do in the Washington area.

The decisions made on national transportation policies are largely made inside the Beltway, far away from the turnpikes that move business and pleasure travelers across the country. The Beltway encircles the political and social life of our nation's politicians much the same way the pioneers would protect against attacks by pulling the wagons into a protective circle.

This four-lane to six-lane highway is 64 miles long. The Urban Mobility Study's 2000 Roadway Congestion Index ranks the region served by the Beltway as the third worst in the nation behind the Los Angeles and San Francisco-Oakland areas. Along these lanes, there are no billboards. They're not allowed, you see, by the political establishment.

For years, local jurisdictions have fought each other on how to best use this highway to move 4 million people around the region.

Virginia has made the tough decisions to condemn some structures for broadening the road during the past 40 years to its current six lanes. Maryland, on the other hand, has experienced as much population growth but has consistently refused to widen the Beltway at some bottleneck points. Therefore, every morning we tune in to traffic reports of backups and accidents on the Maryland side that don't appear to plague the Virginia side.

It is from this environment that the decisions are made on how to spend federal highway dollars.

The Mobility Report looks at 75 cities and their congestion problems.

Some of the facts are self-evident. Congestion is growing in areas of every size. Many more trips are accommodated on the transportation system, and it's costing travelers time and money. Here are some of the hard facts comparing 1982 and 2000:

• Average annual delay for each traveler at peak times climbed from 16 hours to 62 hours.

• Passenger-miles of travel increased more than 85 percent on the freeways and major streets and about 25 percent on the transit systems.

• Total congestion "bill" for the 75 areas in 2000 came to $67.5 billion the value of 3.6 billion hours of delay and 5.7 billion gallons of excess fuel consumed.

The study noted that to keep congestion from growing between 1999 and 2000, these jurisdictions would have had to construct 1,780 new lane-miles of freeway and 2,590 new lane-miles of streets; or commuters would have had to car pool or use mass transit or telecommute an average of 6.2 million additional new trips per day; or roads would have needed operational improvements that allowed 3 percent more travel to be handled on the existing systems; or that some combination of these actions would have been needed.

These events did not happen and congestion increased, according to the report.

Now, how does this study affect housing? The simple answer is land use.

Houses are where the jobs go at night. The road systems get workers from their homes to their jobs ideally in a timely manner.

"Road expansions slow the growth of congestion," according to the study. "In areas where the rate of roadway additions were approximately equal to travel growth, travel time grew at about one-fourth to one-third as fast as areas where traffic volume grew much faster than roads were added."

The study points out, though, "that in many of the nation's most congested corridors, there does not seem to be the space, money and public approval to add enough roadway to create an acceptable condition."

Our population is growing. As we build more houses, we must also maintain an infrastructure to bear the weight of more cars headed to work.

This infrastructure and practical change must come in the form of new and improved roads, more mass transit and, most important, a change in attitude nationally from travelers on their willingness to use car pools and mass transit. As the report points out, "the effectiveness of options will vary from area to area, but the growth in congestion over the past 19 years suggests that more needs to be done."

M. Anthony Carr, director of communications for the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors, has written about real estate for more than 12 years. Reach him by e-mail ([email protected]).

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