Seattle no longer in traffic's worst 10
Seattle Times staff reporter
Seattle's traffic may or may not be getting better — but at least its ranking among the nation's most congested cities is improving.
The Texas Transportation Institute (TTI), which two years ago pronounced this region's traffic second-worst in the nation, released new rankings yesterday as part of its annual Urban Mobility Report.
The Seattle-Everett metropolitan area's congestion ranked 12th among 75 cities. The region tied for fifth in last year's edition of the report, easily the best-known, most-publicized continuing congestion study in the nation.
Los Angeles ranked first this year, San Francisco-Oakland second, Portland-Vancouver eighth.
At least part of Seattle's drop stems from changes in the way the institute measures traffic. This year, for the first time, researchers included in their calculations the effects of public transit, HOV lanes and such operational improvements as freeway-ramp meters.
The new report says each Seattle-area resident — driver and nondriver, adult and child — spent an average of 32 hours stuck in traffic in 2001 and wasted 53 gallons of gas.
But it also says that without transit, HOV lanes and other improvements, the situation would have been even worse.
For 2001 — the most recent year for which information is available — TTI calculated Seattle's "travel time index" score at 1.37. That means the typical peak-period trip took 37 percent longer than during nonpeak hours when roads are free-flowing.
If the old methodology had been used, the region's score would have been 1.43, and it would have ranked ninth.
The institute changed its methods after critics — including environmentalists and Washington's Department of Transportation — challenged the accuracy of the old measures, suggesting they pointed to more roads as the only solution to congestion.
Those critics were singing TTI's praises yesterday.
"They certainly have the made the kinds of changes we were looking for," said state Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald, who pulled his agency's financial support for the study last year in protest. "The anomalies that made us No. 2 have begun to be weeded out."
He said he'd like to re-establish the state's relationship with TTI.
Traffic still is a big problem that must be addressed in the region, MacDonald said, but the new report indicates it isn't significantly worse in Seattle than in other cities its size. In attracting and retain new businesses and jobs, "we are not at a major competitive disadvantage to other cities because of traffic," he said.
Tim Lomax, a TTI research engineer and co-author of the report, said the new methodology is "a better representation of the mobility and congestion situation." Of MacDonald, Lomax said, "we were in the process of making all the changes he wanted. We just weren't making them fast enough."
The new report says that, if everyone in the Seattle area who rides transit drove instead and if there were no HOV lanes, each area resident would have experienced another 14 hours of congestion-related delay in 2001. Only New York, San Francisco-Oakland, Boston and Washington, D.C., got more benefit from public transportation.
"People in Seattle and Everett are saving a lot of time and money because of transit," said Peter Hurley, executive director of the pro-transit Transportation Choices Coalition in Seattle. "You have to give TTI some credit for focusing on moving people and not just moving vehicles."
He said the report points to the need for more regional investment in transit. But TTI's researchers say more road capacity still must be part of the solution.
To keep congestion at current levels without new roads, the report says, another 89,000 Seattle-area commuters — about the population of Everett — would have to switch to transit or car pools.
MacDonald and other state transportation officials had complained the old TTI methodology failed to consider the effects on congestion of ramp meters, traffic-signal coordination on arterials and "incident-management" programs to clear accidents quickly. The new report plugs those factors in, concluding they saved the average Seattle-area resident another 1.5 hours of delay in 2001.
Charlie Howard, planning policy director for the state Transportation Department, said the benefits should be even more evident next year. The agency's new, more comprehensive incident-response program didn't take effect until 2002, he noted.
The Seattle area's travel time index and per capita congestion delay both increased slightly between 2000 and 2001, according to TTI, a branch of Texas A&M University. But the statistics also indicate congestion in the region may actually have improved since the mid-1990s.
The number of hours the average Seattle resident wasted in traffic actually declined from 37 in 1996 to 32 in 2001, the report says — the biggest drop of all 75 metropolitan areas studied.
Howard cautioned against reading too much into TTI's numbers. "The differences are so small, it could be noise in the data," he said.
Lomax, the report's co-author, said changes in TTI's data and assumptions may be partly responsible for the decline. But he also said it's possible the region's traffic has improved. And numbers collected by the state and Puget Sound Regional Council show volumes on some Seattle-area freeways have dipped since 2001, apparently in response to the recession.
When TTI ranked Seattle's traffic congestion No. 2 in the nation two years ago, it was widely cited by local officials calling for action. The ranking was a double-edged sword, MacDonald said: It helped galvanize policy-makers, but also created a negative climate that may have kept some businesses out or driven them away.
But Richard Chapman, vice president of the Economic Development Council of Seattle and King County, said Boeing's decision to move its headquarters to Chicago and the 1999 World Trade Organization riots have been bigger obstacles for the region in its bids to attract and keep business.
"Way down on the list is transportation," he said.
Eric Pryne: 206-464-2231 or email@example.com
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