All gassed up, nowhere to go

Congestion on the region’s main highways hasn’t gotten much worse, according to an annual traffic study, but the main arterials are far more jammed than they were 10 years ago

By Warren Cornwall

Herald Writer

Driving on smaller highways around Everett and Seattle increasingly resembles the notorious congestion on the largest freeways, helping to keep the region among the most traffic-snarled in the nation.

While overall congestion has stayed largely unchanged, travel has grown more arduous on the region’s smaller roads, according to a new report by a transportation think tank.

The Texas Transportation Institute’s annual congestion report has become a yearly ritual released with the groans that greet rankings like "Murder Capital of the United States."

This year, the Seattle-Everett area saw its share of carnage:

The region ranked second or third in the country on several measures of congestion, behind perennial "winner" Los Angeles.

Each person here spent an average 53 hours trapped in traffic jams in 1999, the latest year in the report.

Each burned roughly $930 and 81 gallons of gas sitting in traffic.

All told, slowdowns cost the region $1.86 billion in 1999, according to the report.

Though gruesome, the results show only a slight increase over recent years, when Seattle consistently ranked in the top 4.

"It’s really not much of a change from previous years, to be honest," said Mark Hallenbeck, director of the state Transportation Center at the University of Washington. That’s particularly true when accounting for the possible inaccuracies in the data used for the rankings, he said.

That relative stability — bad but not much worse — is defied by one trend, however. Congestion on the smaller highways and roads, such as Highway 99 and 164th Street, has risen steadily the past 10 years, said Charlie Howard, director of the state Transportation Department’s Office of Urban Mobility.

Howard attributes that largely to one problem: there’s no more room on the freeways.

"Our freeways really can’t hold more people," he said. "The roads that lead to the freeways, the roads that parallel the freeways, are really picking up the traffic."

How long did you sit in traffic?

Number of hours, per person, spent in traffic jams in 1999.

1. Los Angeles: 56

2. Seattle-Everett: 53

3. Atlanta: 53

4. Houston: 50

5. Washington, D.C.: 46

6. Dallas: 46

7. Denver: 45

8. Austin, Texas: 45

9. St. Louis: 44

10. San Francisco-Oakland: 42

Source: Texas Transportation Institute

The percent of freeway congested during rush hours remained roughly the same throughout the 1990s, hovering around 70 percent, Howard noted. On smaller highways, however, things grew steadily worse, with congestion rising from 55 percent in 1990 to 70 percent in 1999.

Snohomish County is a testament to that trend. Since 1999, mounting traffic problems have forced the county to limit housing developments near seven stretches of road.

"We are experiencing congestion on arterials, there’s no question about that," Snohomish County engineer Steve Thomsen said.

Breaking the region’s traffic bottlenecks has been at the forefront of state political debates in recent months.

Lawmakers are trying to draft a spending package to deal with the state’s transportation woes. Boeing Chairman Phil Condit recently underlined the matter, warning that transportation problems could affect company decisions about where to locate future commercial airplane operations.

The institute’s study has already found its way into the discussion.

Gov. Gary Locke pointed to the findings last week while unveiling a $17 billion 10-year plan to fund transportation projects throughout the state.

"That’s why it is so necessary to pass this package," said the governor’s press secretary, Dana Middleton.

Others, however, charge Locke’s plan shortchanges transit projects that could help keep congestion in check.

"If you’re looking at how to get people out of traffic, the key is public transit," said Aaron Ostrom, Executive Director of 1000 Friends of Washington, a Seattle-based group that campaigns on growth-related issues.

Traffic here is so bad…

  • Each person in the Seattle-Everett area spent about 53 hours stuck in traffic in 1999.

  • A drive that normally takes an hour took an hour and 48 minutes during rush hour.

  • Drivers encountered congestion during 40 percent of car trips.

  • Congestion costs each person $930 and burns 81 gallons of gas.

  • The region lost $1.86 billion and 162 million gallons of gas to traffic snarls.

  • A combination of road building and other efforts will likely prove necessary to deal with the nation’s traffic woes, according to the report’s authors.

    The report found that cities building roads to keep pace with increased traffic fared better when it came to congestion. While congestion didn’t get better, it got worse more slowly, according to the report.

    But the authors warned the trend might not be sustainable. That’s partly because of the costs, and local concerns about the impact of massive road-expansion efforts.

    "It would be almost impossible to attempt to maintain a constant congestion level with road construction only," the report states.

    You can call Herald Writer Warren Cornwall at 425-339-3463 or send e-mail to

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