Numbers don’t lie — traffic is terrible and getting worse

Did you know there are 63 hours of traffic jams for every 24 hours in our area?

I didn’t know that kind of math was possible. But in the world of traffic analysis, this sad statistic is a measure of our brake-light culture.

Congestion is on the rise with the economy, according to the 2014 Corridor Capacity Report published Oct. 16 by the state Department of Transportation.

“We’ve got more jobs, more commuters — and more congestion,” said Robin Mayhew, a program manager in transportation for the Puget Sound Regional Council, a partner in the study.

The report says that by some measures traffic isn’t as bad as it was before the recession started in 2008. But that’s like asking a 2-year-old if they want mushy broccoli or brussels sprouts. Tell that to the folks stuck in the latest miles-long traffic jam.

The numbers themselves remain pretty dismal.

Take your pick.

On I-5, it took 10 minutes longer for the average single-occupant morning commuter to get from Everett to Seattle in 2013 compared to 2011. And at 50 minutes, that’s a long way from the 28 minutes it should take.

On I-405, the average morning commuter spent 7 minutes longer on the road from Lynnwood to Bellevue each morning. At 44 minutes, it was 25 minutes longer than the 19-minute target.

You know the hot spots. Urban commute corridors down I-5, I-405 and others see the bulk of traffic.

In fact, just 5.5 percent of the 18,662 state highway lane miles experienced congestion in 2013, with only 0.5 percent of that in rural areas. (Maybe it’s time to move to Glenoma.)

That statistic I mentioned at the top? State researchers figure there were 165 miles of routinely congested segments. Together, they added up to 63 vehicle hours of delay, the official description for “congestion.” (I’m sure we all have our own personal descriptions, but we’ll leave it at that.)

Taken to the steering wheel, each Washingtonian spent 4 hours and 42 minutes delayed due to traffic in 2013. If you look just at our Puget Sound area, it’s nearly double that.

Makes me shudder just thinking about it.

But it’s more than an emotional drain for many drivers.

Time is money, as they say. And the cost of all these delays is pegged at $858 million and rising in lost productivity and other measures. And that’s with spending nearly $4 billion on road projects aimed, in part, at reducing congestion.

Tolling on the Highway 520 bridge may be raising money, but for now it’s mostly pushing the crawl to other areas, notably I-90. (Guess where the state is studying to install another toll bridge.)

Construction projects that fell in the study’s window certainly didn’t help the numerical picture, either.

Other bumper-to-bumper factors include more people of driving age, rising employment and lower gas prices.

So what will help?

Carpooling still saves a significant amount of time.

On I-405, carpoolers from Lynnwood reach Bellevue, on average, in half the amount of time as single-occupant drivers. That said, the two major park-and-ride lots in Lynnwood, which have a combined 2,400 parking spaces, are at full capacity.

Riding the bus cuts down on the number of cars on the road, and the transit system still has room to spare.

About 102,400 commuters used express-transit service daily in 2013. But measured in travel time, riding a bus through all its regular stops often is not much different than driving solo through traffic.

Future express tolling lanes on I-405 are expected to help a red-lined section from Lynnwood to Bellevue. It’s the next step in adding toll lanes all the way down to Puyallup. The state also continues to study adding toll lanes on I-5 from Tacoma to Everett, including the reversible Express Lanes through downtown Seattle.

On northbound Highway 167 in the south Puget Sound area, a similar tolling lane saves the drivers who use it an average of 8 minutes during the peak commuting hour for an average fee of $2.25. But while congestion has improved in general purpose lanes on Highway 167 since the pilot project began, on 8 out of 10 days single-occupant drivers are still going under 45 mph during the morning rush.

We know what to do.

“The thing I would say is, there are people working on this,” said Mayhew, of the Puget Sound Regional Council, which helps shepherd transportation projects in the region.

Economic Alliance Snohomish County earlier this year published a $1 billion list of 17 projects aimed at improving highways and major arterials to support the county’s aerospace and industrial centers. They range from $250 million for the first phase of rebuilding the Highway 2 westbound trestle down to $10 million for an upgrade of Highway 99 into Edmonds.

“We’re the gateway to the Pacific. We have an export economy. In Snohomish County, 60 percent of our jobs are tied to exports,” said Troy McClelland, president and CEO of Economic Alliance Snohomish County. “We have to fix it.”

Dollars have not been forthcoming, however. It’s not that those who craft the state budget in Olympia don’t understand the needs.

“Pick your side of the aisle, everyone understands the importance of it,” McClelland said.

Yet the Legislature has been unable to pass a new transportation package to fund projects. And other funding priorities, notably education, make the task more difficult.

Meanwhile, the population continues to climb.

“We need to care for this for our economic future and — this may sound Pollyanna — but for the next generation’s future,” McClelland said. “This is an important legacy.”

Have a question? Email us at streetsmarts@heraldnet.com. Please include your name and city of residence. Look for updates on our Street Smarts blog.

Key findings

Key findings from the state’s 2014 Corridor Capacity Report:

Statewide congestion increased 1.5 percent between 2011 and 2013 — from 31.97 million to 32.45 million hours of annual vehicle delay — mirroring the state’s improving economy.

In 2013, an average person experienced about five hours of congestion, roughly the same amount of extra time spent delayed in traffic as in 2011.

Delay on state highways cost drivers and businesses $858 million in 2013 compared to $845 million in 2011. This equates to about $125 per person, both in 2011 and 2013.

There were 1,506 transit vehicles in service during peak travel periods in 2013. Of these, 570 were 90 percent full on a daily basis.

About 102,400 commuters used express-transit service daily in 2013, more than twice the capacity of Seattle’s Safeco Field. This helped reduce 1.03 million miles of solo-vehicle travel and 873,000 pounds of greenhouse-gas emissions.

The WSDOT Ferries Division made more than 162,000 sailings, 95.6 percent of which departed on time. Annual ridership was 22.5 million in 2013.

Source: Washington State Department of Transportation

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