Gridlocked: Staring at Brake Lights and Holding First Place

10/04/2011 06:47 pm ET | Updated Dec 04, 2011

The term "gridlock" has a curious history. Appropriately, it first appeared in the traffic sense of the word in newspapers during the New York City transit strike in 1980. Although the word "gridlock" is vintage New Yorkese, only Washington could take the word and give it an entirely different meaning, as in "political gridlock," which is what happens when little gets done.

It is ironic that our region, the capital of the free world, suffers from world-class gridlock in the political process and on area roads. The latter was recently verified by the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) 2011 Urban Mobility Report. In fact, motorists in Washington D. C. metropolitan area wasted the most time being stuck in traffic in the nation. It was a grand total of 74 hours of lost time, that's almost two work weeks, according to the TTI.

Although the Greater Washington area is ranked as the seventh-largest metropolitan area in the country, its commuters are stuck in traffic congestion longer each year than the residents of the three largest cities in the country: New York City (54 hours), Chicago (71 hours) and Los Angeles (where it is 64 hours), the TTI's annual rankings show.

Two years ago, Washington shared the crown with Chicago for the nation's worst congestion. Now, Washington has dethroned the "second city" and it holds the dubious distinction of claiming the number one spot singularly, the TTI annual urban mobility report proves.

All that road congestion in the Washington metro area is forcing area motorists to buy 37 extra gallons of gasoline. That means area commuters had to fork over an extra $1,495 annually in commuting costs. Toting it all up, that's $3.8 billion in wasted fuel, mislaid time, and misplaced productivity in the Washington metro area alone, shows the 2011 Urban Mobility Report.

That figure, by the way, represents four percent of the nation's total congestion costs that soared to just over $100 billion last year. If things continue as they are, it will get worse before it gets better. That's despite construction on the $2 billion Capital Beltway High-Occupancy Toll (HOT) Lanes project which brings improvements to I-495, the 23-mile extension of transit rail to the Dulles Corridor, and the Intercounty Connector (ICC) in Maryland.

Although the annual TTI report can put a dollar figure on the cost of the intractable congestion in our area, lost time is really incalculable and immeasurable. Once it is gone or wasted, it is gone forever, and that is the sad reality once you crunch the numbers. That's time we could have spent with our family, loved ones and friends. All this intractable gridlock makes us tardy and uptight.

As the economy goes, so goes the traffic, and vice versa, analysts say. The Washington area has weathered the economic storm of the recession better than most regions in the country. In fact, Washington's favorable economic fortunes during the recession actually caused congestion on area roads to worsen, unlike other major metropolitan areas, where the growing jobless rate kept people off the roads, the thinking goes.

Even so, four of the top five wealthiest counties in the nation are located in Maryland and Virginia. With a wealth of good-paying jobs, the region's annual delay per commuter increased by two hours in the period between 2010 and 2009, the TTI report reveals.

A twinkle of hope can found in all of these facts and figures. Curiously, Washingtonians made fewer trips and traveled fewer miles on public transportation in 2010, than in 2009 and 2008, the TTI report shows. Interestingly, another study, this one by the Brookings Institution, shows "82 percent of people in the capital area have access to Metro buses and trains." Yet it appears, transit's loss is telecommuting's gain, notes AAA Mid-Atlantic.

Approximately 600,000 workers -- 25 percent of the region's workforce -- telework occasionally. That's the only sign of progress in the protracted battle against the besetting gridlock that bedevils our bodies, minds, souls, and psyches day-in and day-out.

Across the country, we are losing billions of dollars stuck in traffic each year, TTI researchers warn. As evidence, American drivers purchased 1.9 billion gallons of extra fuel, pushing the total congestion cost to an extra $101 billion during 2010, including $23 billion for truck congestion.

Talk about "Wasted days and wasted nights." Well, that's not just an old Freddy Fender "done-me-wrong" tune. It's the constant lament of Washington area drivers and commuters. No wonder area drivers spend so much time leaning out the car window while making obscene gestures and cursing at other drivers.

"We're number one! We're number one!" as the old cheerleading chant goes. Area drivers spend more time staring at brake lights than anyone else in the country. And no one envies us.