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Denver gridlock ranked 9th

Metro area's traffic jams 'improve,' national study says

Published May 10, 2005 at midnight

Metro Denver improved to having the ninth-worst traffic jams in the nation in 2003, a study shows, but drivers might not have noticed the fall from seventh place.

The fact is, Denver's rush hours haven't eased. It's just that other cities got worse and passed Denver in the rankings.

What does it all mean?

Denver area drivers still spend about 40 percent more time making trips during rush hour than during off-peak hours, according to the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University, which has been keeping track of traffic jams in its Urban Mobility Study since 1982.

"About half the large urban areas stayed the same or got worse," said Tim Lomax, one of the authors of the study issued Monday. It is based on 2003 data. In some places, it was the loss of jobs rather than improvements in transportation that led to the easing of traffic.

For Denver drivers, the survey's good news is that the average waste of time at rush hour was 51 hours, compared with 52 hours for 2002.

"I hope I used it to get some extra sleep," said Jeff May, director of the Denver Regional Council of Governments' Metro Vision Resource Center.

Houston, Miami and San Diego moved ahead of Denver while Boston moved out of the top ten.

May noted that according to the study, Denver's traffic numbers were so close to those of Houston, Miami and San Diego, which ranked slightly worse for traffic, that Denver could fluctuate up and down from fifth to ninth with only slight changes in data.

"Last year, we were tied for seventh with two others," May said.

On the other hand, he said, there have been improvements in highway and local road capacity in metro Denver even through the recession, as projects funded before the economic decline wind up construction and open to traffic.

A total of 820 miles of new roads opened in the Denver area in the five years leading up to 2003, the study states.

Two years ago Denver was ranked fifth for traffic congestion, reflecting 2001 data.

That was the region's peak year in nearly every category the study tracks. In 2001, 71 million person-hours were spent in traffic congestion.

The 2003 number is down to 64.5 million.

In 2001, the average rush hour commuter wasted $983 in fuel and lost time sitting in traffic; for 2003, the waste premium was down to $865.

The improvement came even though more driving was done in 2003: 47.6 million miles per day, compared with 45.8 million in 2001.

Tom Norton, executive director of the Colorado Department of Transportation, said projects finishing up since 2001, including the Direct Connection program that extended Interstate 270 to link up with the Boulder Turnpike, are only partly responsible.

He credited programs such as ramp metering that keeps freeways moving, courtesy patrols that get accidents and stalled vehicles quickly out of traffic, and real-time, online traffic information that helps drivers better schedule their travel times.

"I think we're actually getting some increased capacity out of the system we already have," Norton said.

"We've concentrated on that aspect since we don't have enough money to keep expanding capacity.

"That doesn't necessarily mean we don't have a big problem to address with new projects," he added.

On a personal note, Norton said, his commute to CDOT headquarters in southeast Denver from his home in Greeley takes about seven to 10 minutes less now than it did just a few years ago, he said.

However, it's still about 25 minutes longer than when he first started coming to Denver as a freshman legislator in the 1980s.

Top cities for rush-hour congestion

The travel-time index measurement shows how much longer a trip takes in rush hour compared with other times of the day. An index of 1.75 for Los Angeles, for example, means that it takes 75 percent longer to travel the same distance in rush hour than it takes during off-peak hours. For Denver, with an index of 1.40, that means a 30-minute trip during off-hours would take 42 minutes in rush hour.

1. Los Angeles 1.75

2. Chicago 1.57

3. San Francisco 1.54

4. Washington 1.51

5. Atlanta 1.46

6. Houston 1.42

6. Miami 1.42

8. San Diego 1.41

9. Denver-Aurora 1.40

10. New York 1.39

10. Las Vegas 1.39

12. Detroit 1.38

12. Seattle 1.38

14. Riverside- San Bernardino, Calif. 1.37

14. San Jose, Calif. 1.37

14. Baltimore 1.37

14. Sacramento, Calif 1.37

14. Portland, Ore. 1.37

19. Dallas-Fort Worth 1.36

20. Phoenix 1.35

21. Boston 1.34

22. Minneapolis-St. Paul 1.34

23. Tampa-St. Petersburg, Fla. 1.33

23. Austin, Texas 1.33

25. Philadelphia 1.32

42. Colorado Springs 1.19

72. Boulder 1.08

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