Metro traffic congestion at a record high

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Twin Cities freeway congestion hit a record high last year, according to a new report from the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

Using the same methodology that found annual reductions in traffic jams for the years 2004 through 2006 – conclusions rendered doubtful by a respected independent national barometer of congestion – MnDOT reported that Twin Cities freeways were 14 percent more clogged in 2007 than the year before.

The agency blamed this on the collapse of the I-35W bridge on Aug. 1 and no growth of freeway capacity during the year.

“Without additions to freeway capacity, we can expect the future to continue the long-term trend of growth in congestion,” said the report, released on March 14. “MnDOT has limited resources to slow projected increases in congestion.”

Its own predictions, developed before new transportation funding was enacted in February, envision 41.5 percent of the Twin Cities freeway system congested by 2030, up from the all-time high of 23.5 percent recorded last year.

Brian Kary, MnDOT freeway operations engineer, said it is unclear how significantly the new funding, much of which may go to catching up on deferred maintenance instead of system expansion, will change the agency’s congestion projection.

But any increase in traffic snarls is a scary prospect for workaday commuters as well as our economy, and MnDOT’s numbers may not give a full picture of the problem. MnDOT defines congestion as freeway traffic slowed to 45 miles per hour or less. Its approach takes no account of freeway travel delays at speeds higher than that but less than posted limits and – perhaps more significantly – the greater delays as speeds drop further below 45 m.p.h.

MnDOT also doesn’t track congestion on arterial streets built and maintained by local governments. And it takes its yearly measurements in October, when most road construction projects are completed and snow and ice haven’t yet slowed traffic even more than usual.

By contrast, the Texas Transportation Institute estimates total traffic delays on both freeways and arterial streets throughout the year. Based on that metric, it has reported a nearly unbroken string of increases in Twin Cities congestion from 1982 through 2005. The rise from 6 hours of delay per rush-hour commuter in 1982 to 43 hours in 2005 represents the nation’s fifth-highest rate of congestion growth, the institute said. The cost in 2005 in wasted time, fuel and business inefficiencies: more than $1 billion.

However you measure it, though, there’s no serious disputing the fact that congestion is bad for business, bad for families, bad for our economy.

It can be licked, however, with smart transportation policies that balance expansion of both highways and transit and promote compact, efficient development patterns.

Some of this is happening in Minnesota, notably with replacement of the fallen 35W bridge, “unweaving the weave” at the I-35E-694 interchange north of St. Paul and finally, after costly funding delays, rebuilding the Crosstown Commons of I-35W and Hwy. 62 on the southern border of Minneapolis. Past projects have added lanes to Interstates 35E, 94, 494 and 694, providing some measure of congestion relief, MnDOT says. Bus and rail rapid transit projects and new freeway lanes on the drawing boards will help, too.

Does it cost money, and probably more than will be raised by the funding package recently enacted over Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s veto?

Yes. But the Texas Governor’s Business Council – not exactly a far-out leftist pressure group – says smartly targeted spending to reduce congestion will pay off eightfold in economic growth. If you know of a better investment, my retirement fund could sure use some help.

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