Choking hazard

America is choking to death on traffic congestion. It's a problem that's affecting every aspect of American life, from rising oil imports to higher prices at the grocery store. And managers of light- and medium-duty fleets are bearing the brunt of the burden. Cars and trucks are getting snarled in traffic across the country at all hours of the day and night as highway networks continue to crumble

America is choking to death on traffic congestion. It's a problem that's affecting every aspect of American life, from rising oil imports to higher prices at the grocery store. And managers of light- and medium-duty fleets are bearing the brunt of the burden.

Cars and trucks are getting snarled in traffic across the country at all hours of the day and night as highway networks continue to crumble under stresses they were never designed to handle. We're facing a major logistics crisis.

A study by the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI), which looked at 1999 data from 68 urban areas across the U.S., found more severe congestion than expected, with the average annual delay per person climbing from 11 hours in 1982 to 36 hours in 1999. And in areas with less than 1-million people, this figure quintupled over the same time period.

That alone is bad news. But there's also a cost associated with such delays. The total congestion bill for those 68 areas came to $78 billion — the monetary value assigned to 4.5-billion hours of delay and 6.8-billion gallons of excess fuel consumed. That's just for the Average Joe like me, by the way. It doesn't take into account the impact of traffic delays on trucking.

Just to keep regular old commuter congestion from growing between 1998 and 1999 would have required 1,800 new lane-miles of freeway and 2,500 new lane-miles of streets, according to TTI. About 6.1-million new trips taken by carpool or public transportation might also have relieved the traffic pressure. But those things didn't happen.

And here we are in 2001, burning even more fuel as we sit in traffic, going absolutely nowhere. What can we do about it? According to TTI, additional roadways are not a realistic solution. “In many of the nation's most congested corridors there doesn't seem to be the space, money and public approval to add enough road space to create an acceptable condition.”

So while we do have to build some new roads and repair the ones we have, we also need to take a look at how people get to and from their jobs. Many workers in urban areas don't have to travel by car and could, in fact, take public transportation. Yet already-overwhelmed public transit agencies don't seem ready to handle more passengers. An increase in the number of people who telecommute would also help alleviate traffic congestion.

Then there's the matter of efficient — or rather, inefficient — use of transportation networks. “Identifying and clearing accidents and vehicle breakdowns, addressing construction and maintenance activity impacts on congestion, and providing more reliable and predictable travel times are goals for congested corridors,” says TTI.

It's clear that we need more funding, but this could be difficult in the aftermath of President Bush's massive $1.35-trillion tax cut. The Road Information Program (TRIP), a Washington lobbying firm, puts it this way: “The American way of life depends on the ability of the transportation system to move goods and services in a timely, cost-effective way. Yet traffic congestion slows the delivery of products and services that serve as the economic backbone of the nation. Increasing traffic congestion makes (this) more difficult and more expensive.

“If we are going to make progress and relieve traffic congestion in the years ahead, we need to increase transportation funding at the federal, state and local levels,” the group said. “Now is not the time for lawmakers to consider cutting federal or state gasoline taxes or other transportation funding sources. If we take such drastic measures now, we will end up paying more in the future.” The bill may arrive sooner than we think.

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