It’s a parking lot out there: WSDOT reports freeway congestion getting worse

Interstate 5 traffic (Photo courtesy Community Transit)

We’ve been hearing it for years.

“The traffic is worse than ever.”

“I spend almost as much time getting to my job as I spend actually working.”

“Is there ever a time of day when I-5 isn’t jammed?”

Take heart; it’s not your imagination. And the Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT) has the numbers to prove it.

According to the WSDOT’s just-published 2017 Corridor Capacity Report, traffic congestion along the I-5 corridor has been steadily building over the years, to the point where morning commuters can expect to spend an excruciating 94 minutes in stop-and-go traffic to make the 23-mile trip from Everett to Seattle.

Yes, 94 minutes. Enough time to watch both the local AND national news (including commercials), get a root canal or take in Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, all with time to spare.

Oh, and that will just get you there. You still gotta drive home at the end of the day.

This chart compares how commute times have grown since the 2014 study for commuters using general purpose lanes, HOV lanes, and mass transit. The bars indicate both “average” (50 percent at your destination on time) and “reliable” (95 percent chance to arrive at your destination on time) commute times. (Source – WSDOT 2017 Corridor Capacity Report)

But you get a break here. According to the same report, the evening commute takes a mere 72 minutes. Doing the math, that means a person living in Everett who works a Monday-through-Friday job in Seattle and commutes in peak rush-hour traffic will spend more than 13 hours behind the wheel each week, adding up to a staggering one month per year looking at the person’s bumper in front of you as you navigate “the five.”

The report couches these figures in a metric it calls “reliable commute time,” which reflects the amount of time a commuter would need to budget to arrive on time at the destination 95 percent of the time. In other words, you need to leave home early enough to drive for 94 minutes, plus the additional time it takes you to park and get to your workplace. And if you do this, you’ll only be late one time in 20. Folks who like to live on the edge (or have a very understanding boss) might want to budget only the average commute duration of 56 minutes, but according to the report this means you’ll be late for work half the time.

Using statistics and indicators gathered over the years, the report traces changes in traffic volume, traffic delays (defined as traffic flowing at less than 85 percent of the posted speed limit), vehicle emissions, park-and-ride lot utilization, mass transit ridership and capacity, toll and HOV lane usage, and more.

While the report covers the congestion issue from a statewide perspective including the Vancouver, Tri-Cities, and Spokane areas, it makes no bones about I-5 being the most extreme case, responsible for 58 percent of the Puget Sound region’s traffic delay. According to the report, “more than 2.5 billion person-miles were traveled between Federal Way and Everett in 2016, a 2.9 percent increase over 2014,” and that “nearly 78 percent of I-5’s peak-period direction miles are routinely congested,” with the segments leading to downtown Seattle leading the pack. And, the report says, it “would have been worse” without the presence of HOV lanes and mass transit options including buses, rail and park and ride lots — which the report also says typically fill to beyond capacity, with many commuters forced to park in non-designated spaces.

This chart shows how traffic delays have increased over the past five years on major Puget Sound area traffic corridors. Note that I-5 lead the pack, with a whopping 57.6 percent increase in vehicle hour delays over this period. (Source: WSDOT)

What’s behind it? According to the report, our booming economy is the key culprit.

Employment is up 9.2 percent above 2007 pre-recession levels, and in 2016 Washington State reached 3.245 million non-farm workers, up 5.8 percent since 2014. The majority of these jobs are in the greater Seattle/Bellevue area, where employment has grown by 4.9 percent and unemployment is at a nine-year low. But our double-digit increases in housing costs mean many of these workers simply can’t afford to live close to their jobs.

Pushed out of the city by this high-priced housing market, many are forced to live in ever more distant suburbs and commute to work on I-5. And it’s not just north and south of the city. Many are finding housing further east and west of I-5, adding pressure on adjacent corridors that provide access to the interstate such as State Highway 2 and I-405. Locally this has led to the recent completion of the 238th Street east-west corridor through Edmonds and Mountlake Terrace, and the planned Harbor Reach Corridor in Mukilteo.

And it’s more than slow commutes and crowded roads. More vehicles spending more time on our roads hits numerous other quality-of-life issues, including greenhouse emissions and water quality. The report cites a 2013 (the most recent year these data are available) Department of Ecology study that found transportation-related activities are responsible for 42.8 percent of all greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere. A recent report from NOAA implicated high levels of vehicle traffic with sharp increases in salmon mortality in a number of western Washington streams, including those flowing through Edmonds.

So what does the future hold?

Look for more HOV and toll lanes, expanded park and ride lots, and more mass transit options. Telecommute if you can, even if it’s only a day or two each week. If you must drive, talk to your employer about a flexible schedule that will allow you to avoid peak traffic times.

And to help ensure a more comfortable commute, postpone that second cup of coffee until after you arrive at work.

— By Larry Vogel

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