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Report Tallies Costs of Road Congestion -- and Political Gridlock

Transportation funding advocates in Congress got some fresh ammunition Tuesday with the release of a new report on worsening road congestion for urban commuters, which highlights the sometimes nightmarish commute for the Washington area as well as the rising costs of gridlock to the broader economy.

The Texas A&M Transportation Institute’s annual Urban Mobility Report said the nation’s capital is again the worst urban area for congestion, where highway commuters and freight-hauling truck drivers lose an extra 67 hours and 32 gallons of fuel in jammed traffic compared with free-flowing travel, costing them nearly $1,400 dollars each.

Looking beyond the Capital Beltway, TTI researchers calculated that extra time and fuel use as drivers were locked bumper-to-bumper cost the overall economy $121 billion in 2011, and that congestion costs will surge to $199 billion by 2020. Average congestion costs in 2011 were put at $818 per commuter, but unless something changes each person will be paying out $1,010 in 2020.

The 2011 figures are down from the 2005 peak year before the sharp recession cut into traffic volume and triggered a wave of stimulus investments in transit systems and road repairs. But various congestion measures are up from 2010 and are rising in cities large and small. TTI warns things will worsen as the economy improves. While the report focuses on how congestion hits commuters, it also details the spreading economic costs that come with delays in truck shipments throughout the commercial goods supply chain.

The report follows action by Congress last year to enact a two-year highway and transit bill that limited federal road and transit spending to status quo levels. Lawmakers postponed decisions about long-term revenue fixes for the growing shortfalls in Highway Trust Fund tax collections.

In recent weeks, both chambers approved $50.5 billion in infrastructure repairs and other disaster aid to areas hard-hit by Superstorm Sandy, including money for long-term storm protection projects. But a majority of Republicans voted against the funding measures that did not offset the spending with budget cuts elsewhere.

Pete Ruane, president and chief executive of the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, cited the report as he took aim at a lack of progress among Washington policymakers to improve a crumbling network of transportation systems. He said Washington “has the dubious distinction of being number one in two areas: It is the capital of partisan gridlock, and now traffic gridlock.”

Ruane said that “while we may have to accept deadlocked politicians, there are ways to get Americans moving again” through “robust new investments” to expand highway and transit capacity and provide more travel options.

The TTI report provides local examples for many lawmakers, since it lists congestion costs for scores of other cities. Highway commuters in big metro areas on the East and West coasts — New York, Boston, Los Angeles and San Francisco — were stuck in traffic more than 50 hours in 2011. Commuters in such urban areas as Houston, Atlanta and Chicago experienced similar delays.

The average highway commuter in Dallas-Fort Worth traffic shelled out $957 in congestion costs that year and was stuck 45 hours beyond travel times if traffic moved freely. Phoenix-area drivers were stuck 35 extra hours at a cost of $837. Nashville commuters lost 47 hours and $1,034 from gridlock, the report said, while in Columbus, Ohio, they lost 40 hours and $847.

Drivers in smaller cities had their share of delays as well. Those taking the roadways to work in Columbia, S.C., gave up 30 hours in 2011 and $663 in congestion costs, TTI said, while Provo, Utah, commuters sat for 25 hours and lost $514 in wasted time and fuel.

There are small signs the policy gridlock could be changing. In negotiations ahead of the New Year’s Day fiscal cliff, President Barack Obama initially said any big year-end budget deal should include new money for transportation projects. While the president backed off that goal as the deadline neared, he continued to mention road and bridge needs so much that some observers expect him to propose new infrastructure measures soon.

Senators from both parties also briefly discussed ways to boost the Highway Trust Fund during last year’s lame duck session before dropping that idea from cliff negotiations. Still, new House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., and Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., are among those exploring ways to increase infrastructure spending. Some other lawmakers back new bonding ideas that could leverage federal dollars to woo more state and private project funding.

Nearby, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell is pushing a transportation plan through his legislature that would replace the state’s gasoline tax with an incremental hike in sales taxes. That would build in a type of inflation adjustment that could increase revenue as the tax base values rise, unlike the traditional per-gallon fixed fee that is tied just to fuel volume.

McDonnell, a Republican, is running into resistance for other proposals to impose tolls on part of Interstate 95 in southern Virginia or levy a yearly fee on owners of alternative-fuel cars. But his overall plan could raise or shift large sums into road, transit and intercity rail projects that include some work near Washington — and suggest new options for other states as well as lawmakers in Congress.

In Maryland, authorities said they will raise the speed limit starting March 31 from 55 to 60 mph on a fairly new east-west toll road, the 18-mile Intercounty Connector that links I-370 to I-95.

Its opening in November 2011 offered drivers a four-lane route across an increasingly crowded central part of the state without having to drop down into the Capital Beltway’s congested lanes, and boosting its speed could help attract customers.

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