Good Question: Why Is Traffic More Congested Than Ever?

By Jason DeRusha, WCCO-TV

— According to a new report by the Minnesota Department of Transportation, more of us in the Twin Cities metro are stuck in traffic than ever before. Approximately 21.5 percent of all metro highway miles are classified as congested.

So, with high unemployment, why are roads so congested now?

“In the last few years saw a decline in congestion,” said Brian Kary, MnDOT’s freeway operations director. “We had a downturn in the economy which affects congestion, also had some major projects. This year, we didn’t have that,” he explained.

Every October MnDOT uses the sensors in the highways to track congestion. When traffic dips below 45 miles per hour it counts as congested. In 2009, 150 miles of metro freeway was congested. In 2010, that jumped to 170 miles — an increase of 13 percent.

“It kinda surprised us too to see it go up that much,” said Kary.

This report measures the number of miles that are congested, not the amount of time people spend stuck in traffic. So, the growth, according to Kary, is happening in outlying suburban areas.

“We have some outer areas that were approaching that capacity value and finally tipped the scale so to speak,” he said.

For example, for the first time, Interstate 35E north of I-694 by Hugo is classified as congested. So is I-94 east of the 694/494 beltway in Woodbury.

“That really showed an increase in congestion that we haven’t seen before,” he said.

The afternoon rush (2 p.m. to 7 p.m.) is more severe than the morning (5 a.m. to 10 a.m.) because of the discretionary trips in the afternoon. The morning is typically just people commuting to work.

“In the past we really saw a decline of congestion in pm peak, those are commuters and discretionary trips, and it seems like those might be coming back and we’re seeing a lot of congestion in the PM peak,” said Kary.

Congestion levels in 2010 were higher than the previous peak levels in October of 2001 when the ramp meters were turned off, and in October of 2007, where the I-35W bridge was closed because of the bridge collapse and reconstruction project.

Building out of the congestion problem is not possible with projected funding levels, according to Kary.

“At best we can try to slow down the rate of congestion to reach a plateau,” he said, arguing that increased use of mass transit and telecommuting is the only way to really reduce the levels of congestion miles.

Check out MnDOT’s full report.

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