In Washington we're traffic

The Washington, D.C. metro area may rank second in the nation for longest commute, but apparently we're second to none when it comes to traffic.

"Washington suffers from the worst traffic congestion in the nation, with drivers spending more than three days out of every 365 caught in traffic," blares the Washington Post today.

Other sobering statistics in a just released study by Texas A&M illustrate how area drivers spend a lot of their lives stuck in the slow lane:

  • D.C. drivers travel bumper to bumper more than twice the national average of 34 hours
  • the 74 hours the average commuter is stuck in traffic each years burn 37 gallons of fuel
  • the average cost per area driver at the pump and in lost wages comes to $1,495

With regional population expected to swell by 1.2 million newcomers by 2030, transportation experts warn that building more highways or charging more tolls just aren't going to do the trick to alleviate our growing traffic problem.

Lucky for me I ride Metro to work, but public transit is not exactly trouble-free either. The aging system has barely enough revenue to address a backlog of maintenance issues just to keep the system running smoothly. An influx of new riders in the coming years will require massive investment to repair and upgrade tracks, trains and stations.   

Fixing existing infrastructure -- rails, roads, bridges -- first is key. Smart growth proponents also recommend better planning to ensure that communities are developed around rail and bus hubs that are near job centers.

Everyone agrees that we need more money to adequately deal with our transportation challenges. The question is not how much -- a couple hundred billion dollars per year should do it -- but how to pay for it?

“Members of Congress continue to delay action on a new multi-year bill as their constituents idle each day in mind-numbing traffic congestion,” Pete Ruane, president of the American Road and Transportation Builders Association said in the Washington Post. “It’s inexcusable.”

The clock is ticking for Congress to reauthorize the federal surface transportation bill. Current funding for the program has been extended until next March, after which Congress needs to figure out how to pass new legislation. Right now there are two divergent proposals, one in the House that would authorize spending $35 billion annually on transportation projects and another in the Senate proposing $55.4 billion a year. Both are far short of the $222 billion a year that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates is needed to tackle the nation's transportation needs.

The price tag is high because the U.S. transportation system is in bad shape. Commuter rail systems in D.C. and other big cities are old and the interstate highway network just celebrated its 60th birthday. The 18.4 cent-per-gallon federal gas tax just doesn't produce enough revenue to foot the bills. Even though the gas tax hasn't been raised since 1993 lawmakers are loathe to bump it up to fill the huge funding gap the nation faces.

Whatever is decided, the money allocated by Congress for transportation should focus on fixing existing roads, bridges and rail systems instead of just laying more pavement without a long-term plan. The focus of any funding should be on moving Americans forward efficiently, which requires more travel options that allow people to get where they want to go without getting stuck in gridlock.