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South Floridians waste on average 50 hours a year stuck in traffic

Sun-Sentinel - 9/19/2007 12:00:00 AM
by Michael Turnbell and Andrew Tran

Think what you could do with 50 hours of extra time in a year.

You could take more than six vacation days from work.

You could sit through 25 movies or fly across the Atlantic from Miami five times.

In South Florida, you wasted those 50 hours sitting in rush-hour traffic during 2005, according to a new national study released Tuesday.

As dire as that sounds, the Texas Transportation Institute says the region only has the 11th-worst commute in the country.

Orlando drivers spent even more time in traffic jams — 54 hours — and ranked eighth on the list. The national average was 38 hours.

The study summed up the reasons for the delays this way: "Too many people, too many trips over too short of a time period on a system that is too small."

Harry Torres, 34, spends nearly two hours in traffic commuting from Stuart through the Interstate 95 construction zone in West Palm Beach en route to his accounting firm in downtown Fort Lauderdale.

"A bad day is when you've got accidents all up and down I-95 or there's bad weather. A good day is closer to the holiday when people are traveling or school's out and there's less people on the road," Torres said. "There are definitely more bad days than good days."

Robert Sey, 40, an insurance salesman from Tamarac, senses that traffic congestion has gotten worse in the 10 years he has lived in South Florida.

"Everywhere you go, it just takes longer to get there," he said. "There's always more construction projects going on that seems to take forever to get it completed."

The institute, part of Texas A&M University, issues a study on congestion every two years that ranks the nation's urban areas based on delays for rush-hour motorists.

In the latest study, researchers found that it takes South Florida drivers 38 percent longer to get somewhere during rush hour than it does when there are no traffic slowdowns. That means a 30-minute trip in congestion-free conditions takes about 41 minutes at rush hour.

In 1995, about 142,000 vehicles a day used Interstate 595 east of State Road 7. The same area now handles 185,000 vehicles a day.

In Palm Beach County, about 154,000 vehicles a day used I-95 between Delray Beach and Boynton Beach in 2001. After the interstate was widened from six to 10 lanes, the same stretch now handles 170,000 vehicles a day.

Off the interstate, up to 67,000 cars a day drive on Okeechobee Boulevard near Florida's Turnpike, a six-lane road designed for only 49,200 cars a day.

Those traffic jams cost money.

South Florida commuters racked up $2.7 billion in fuel, vehicle wear and tear and lost time fighting traffic on or off the job in 2005, or about $903 per person, while burning 105 gallons of fuel sitting in traffic.

Nationwide, the study estimates that drivers wasted 2.9 billion gallons of fuel. Together with the lost time, traffic delays cost the nation $78.2 billion.

Road and transit advocates called on Congress to spend more money on the nation's roads and mass transit to relieve congestion.

"Americans would be willing to pay more for a better program," said Greg Cohen, president of American Highway Users Alliance.

Just to maintain the same level of congestion with South Florida's growth, the study says South Florida would have to build 330 lane miles — the equivalent of a two-lane road 165 miles long — and add 111,000 daily mass transit or carpool riders each year.

Because that's unlikely, cities and regions need a balanced approach to keep congestion from getting worse, said Tim Lomax, a research engineer and one of the study's co-authors.

"There is no 'magic' technology or solution on the horizon because there is no single cause of congestion," Lomax said. "The good news is that there are multiple strategies involving traffic operations and public transit available right now that if applied together, can lessen this problem."

Those options include coordinating traffic signals, giving contractors bonuses to finish road work ahead of schedule and changing driving patterns through flexible work schedules to more controversial solutions such as traffic lights on entrance ramps to manage the flow of traffic at rush hour or giving drivers the option of paying a toll to guarantee a quicker commute.

In Palm Beach County, it will be July 2009 before the last of nine projects to widen I-95 from Delray Beach to Palm Beach Gardens is completed.

Closer on the horizon, the Florida Department of Transportation will begin work this fall to widen a five-mile stretch of Okeechobee Boulevard to eight lanes from Royal Palm Beach High School to Florida's Turnpike, just as crews finish transforming Southern Boulevard into an eight-lane expressway.

The state also will begin re-striping I-95 between Miami and Fort Lauderdale to accommodate two toll express lanes in each direction, the first of what the state foresees as a network of toll lanes on I-95, I-75 and I-595.

Even then, congestion will continue to be part of the daily lexicon for commuters.