That'll be $695 for the Twin Cities gridlock

  • Article by: PAUL LEVY and TIM HARLOW , Star Tribune staff writers
  • Updated: February 6, 2013 - 6:29 AM

But Twin Citians still pay less than the national average.

Your drive time is longer, your patience shorter. And, with congested roads, your wallet is lighter.

Twin Cities motorists waste 12 gallons of gas and spend an extra 34 hours on the road every year because of congestion, according to a report released Tuesday. And as the economy improves, your commute probably will get even worse.

"We have an uptick in congestion that probably corresponds with an improving economy," said Paul Czech, planning manager for the Department of Transportation's metro district. "More people have jobs -- and that means more people are on the roads."

The news comes atop a recent spike in gas prices in the Twin Cities and nationwide. The average price in the Twin Cities has jumped to $3.58 from $2.89 less than a month ago, according to twincitiesgasprices.com. The national average is $3.50, up about a quarter in the past month.

Congestion costs Twin Cities drivers $695 apiece annually, according to the 2012 Urban Mobility Report from the Texas A&M University Transportation Institute. The national average is $818.

Nationally, after a century of nearly unbroken increases, vehicle miles traveled dropped from 2007 to 2009 and have remained flat since then, according to the Federal Highway Administration. The recession and an aging population have been cited as the primary reasons, so an economic uptick could affect road conditions.

The institute's report looked at mobility and traffic congestion on freeways and major streets in 498 urban areas in the United States. It found that congestion on Twin Cities freeways grew slightly worse from 2011 to 2012.

MnDOT said 21.4 percent of Twin Cities freeways are congested during peak periods (6 to 10 a.m. and 3 to 7 p.m. weekdays) compared with 21 percent in 2011. That is also up from 17.5 percent in 2008 but down from 21.5 in 2010.

As you stare at the bumper in front of you, know that other cities' motorists would gladly trade places. Twin Cities highways traditionally fare better than other spiderwebs of congestion nationally. The metro area ranked between second and 10th for convenience between 2005 and 2009, the last time the 25 largest metropolitan freeway systems were studied.

Public transportation is a factor, with Metro Transit ridership having surpassed 81 million for only the second time in 30 years in 2012. This marked the third consecutive year of ridership growth overall and the highest ridership on the Hiawatha light-rail line. Light-rail trains were on time for about 95 percent of their trips, according to Metro Transit.

The Northstar commuter-rail line grew 4 percent during rush hour, alleviating congestion on Hwy. 10 in the northwestern suburbs. Northstar had an on-time rate of 97 percent.

"People are exploring public alternatives," said Stearns County Commissioner Leigh Lenzmeier, chair of the Northstar Corridor Development Authority. "Slowly but surely, people are catching on."

In recent years, MnDOT has taken steps to reduce congestion by opening MnPass lanes to drivers who pay a fee to drive in lanes reserved for carpools, buses and motorcycles. It also has installed overhead message boards to warn drivers of crashes and congestion and give travel times. It also operates ramp meters to space out traffic and has been rebuilding problematic intersections such as Hwy. 169 and I-494 and I-694 and Hwy. 10 to improve traffic flow.

"You want to increase the efficiency of the roadways with the roads you already have," said Matt Kane, policy fellow for transportation at Growth & Justice, a nonprofit research organization that focuses on policy issues that affect the Minnesota economy.

"You build more capacity and three things happen," Kane said. "You add new travelers, you get people who were avoiding roads to return, and you get people who were avoiding peak hours and want to try again. You just add to the congestion."

MnDOT's Czech says Minnesota is considered a national transportation leader, thanks to metering, signal timing and incident clearing.

"Our study shows that congestion levels appear to be holding its own in the metro area over the past year," said Scott McBride, district engineer for MnDOT's eight-county metro district. "We have not seen a significant change in congestion between 2011 and 2012."

The nation's worst roads for rush-hour congestion are in Washington, D.C., followed by Los Angeles, San Francisco-Oakland, New York-Newark, Boston, Houston, Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia and Seattle.

plevy@startribune.com • 612-673-4419 harlow@startribune.com • 612-673-7768

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