Tampa Bay area traffic congestion ranked 11th worst in nation

TRAFFIC COMES TO A HALT: Drivers wait along the Howard Frankland Bridge on Interstate 275 south after a dump truck overturned about 11 a.m. Tuesday on the Pinellas side. It took more than an hour for emergency crews to clear the road.

RON THOMPSON | Times

TRAFFIC COMES TO A HALT: Drivers wait along the Howard Frankland Bridge on Interstate 275 south after a dump truck overturned about 11 a.m. Tuesday on the Pinellas side. It took more than an hour for emergency crews to clear the road.

TAMPA — Drivers in the bay area spend an average of 47 hours a year — more than a work week — stuck in traffic, according to a study released early today that chronicles the nation's worst road congestion.

Conditions would have been worse if not for the recession and high gas prices, which kept some drivers off the road, the report says.

The Texas Transportation Institute, in its two-year study of traffic patterns in 90 cities and metropolitan areas, found the average bay area commuter wastes 30 gallons of fuel a year in traffic. The study, comparing years from 1982 through 2007, ranked the Tampa Bay area 11th overall — tied with Miami — for worst congestion.

But it also noted that traffic worsened only slightly from 2005, when the study last came out, and improved somewhat from 2006, when drivers spent an average of 48 hours in traffic.

Researchers say the economic downturn and escalating gas prices prompted some drivers to stay home, combine trips or drive at off-peak hours, accounting for the slight drop.

"In this case the fuel prices had a dampening effect," said Tim Lomax, a research engineer and one of the report's authors. "I think people stayed home when they could or combined trips, going to the grocery store on their way home from work."

The report says drivers in the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater area spend twice as much time in congestion as they did 20 years ago.

Los Angeles topped the list with an average of 70 hours yearly spent in traffic in 2007. Orlando was sixth on the list and Jacksonville came in 24th.

Governments aren't keeping up with road construction while more motorists stream into urban areas and suburbs, clogging highways, the report said.

The solution, Lomax said, is to widen roads, improve mass transit and encourage employers to vary work schedules so commuters hit the road at different times or spend some of their work days telecommuting.

Steve Polzin, a transportation researcher and professor at the Center for Urban Transportation at the University of South Florida, says he's not surprised by the findings. People have been on the road less, he said.

"That's because of fuel prices and that's logical. You've seen individuals forgoing trips or combining trips. And when there's less travel then obviously that makes a difference," he said. "The bigger impact of that will show up in 2008 when gas prices peaked."

The slight improvement in time spent in traffic may have escaped the notice of commuters. Marsha Sherman, 53, of Clearwater, a career counselor at the University of Tampa, says she notices seasonal differences when it comes to congestion.

But the same morning parade of taillights seems to pop up each year in the same place: northbound Interstate 275 between West Shore Boulevard and Armenia Avenue.

"That's the biggest congestion. It's bumper to bumper, and for no reason," she said.

Tampa Bay area traffic congestion ranked 11th worst in nation 07/08/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 8, 2009 5:29pm]

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