New York traffic congestion among worst in the nation, study finds

Interstate 87 traffic in Tarrytown. (Nov. 25, 2012) Interstate 87 traffic in Tarrytown. (Nov. 25, 2012) Photo Credit: Faye Murman

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The New York City metro area's traffic congestion was the fourth-worst in the United States in 2011, costing rush-hour commuters a total of $1.28 billion and delaying the average peak-period driver nearly 60 hours a year, a new study has found.

The Urban Mobility Report, released Tuesday by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, also found that rush-hour drivers in the Poughkeepsie-Newburgh area lost 25 hours annually because of traffic congestion, the 75th-highest total in the nation. That is five more hours than a decade ago for the only Hudson Valley urban area listed in the report.

Experts said the numbers reflect an age-old municipal challenge: As metro areas increase in size, cities find themselves strained to keep pace with the flood of new workers and residents.

"You can build houses and add jobs a whole lot faster than you can construct new roads, new subways and new rail lines," said David Schrank, one of the report's co-authors. "It's hard to increase and improve the system."

The study, which focused on 498 U.S. urban areas, used an array of metrics to analyze traffic, including the number of commuters in a given area, public transportation options and carbon dioxide emissions generated by drivers.

Washington was deemed the most congested urban area in the nation, followed by Los Angeles and San Francisco-Oakland.

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Nationwide, the delays cost the average commuter $818 annually, due mostly to fuel costs, the study found. The total cost of congestion in 2011 was $121 billion, an increase of $1 billion from the previous year.

WASTING GAS

Traffic delays led to heavy fuel wastes as well: nearly 3 billion gallons' worth across the United States, the study found. New York City area rush-hour drivers burned through an extra 28 gallons of fuel because of delays, the second-highest total in the nation, and Poughkeepsie-Newburgh commuters went through an extra 13 gallons in 2011.

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For New Yorkers, wasting gas bites deep into the wallet as the state's average cost for a gallon, $3.87, is the third-highest in the nation. And that figure doesn't include the time lost in having to refill one's tank.

"Time and money and gas, all of those things cost more in New York," said Gregg Laskoski, a senior petroleum analyst with GasBuddy.com.

The average New York-Newark driver also emitted 557 pounds of carbon dioxide because of traffic, compared with 125 pounds by Poughkeepsie-Newburgh commuters, according to the study.

UNCLOGGING CONGESTION

Laskoski urged commuters to lobby their politicians to devote more time and resources toward new infrastructure projects, such as the new $3.9 billion Tappan Zee Bridge on which construction is scheduled to begin later in 2013.

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Some local road improvements already have had a positive effect on traffic flow.

Sgt. Tom Ferrito, the traffic supervisor of the State Thruway Police Albany barracks, said troopers used to need binoculars to see the extent of traffic backups on Interstate 87 near Woodbury Commons in Orange County, which could stretch more than five miles on busy shopping days. But thanks to the recent installation of high-speed E-ZPass lanes, improved lane designations and repaved roads, that stretch of highway has bucked Texas A&M's reported trend of heavier traffic in the area.

"To be fair, it's actually gone the opposite way," Ferrito said.

Still, there's no easy fix for traffic bottlenecks, especially in an area like New York, where land is especially expensive and there's only so much room to expand major thoroughfares, Schrank said.

Employers can offer remedies by providing incentives for carpooling and transit passes, as well as flexible work weeks and telecommunication, Schrank said.

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But ultimately, commuters will need to plan ahead and leave more time for their travels as congestion continues to inch upward, Schrank said.

"At some point in time, you can't push more through," he said.

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