They have nicknames: "Hillside Strangler," "Mixing Bowl," "Spaghetti Junction" and "Orange Crush."
They drive commuters crazy. They stall commerce. They waste fuel. And fixing them? Nothing doing. When you're talking about America's worst traffic traps -- the highway bottlenecks that cause the most hours of delay per year -- there's been little to do but sit on someone's bumper and complain.
Could it be changing? In July, nine of America's most congested cities were named semi-finalists for a federal program that will provide a total of $1.1 billion to fight traffic jams. The Department Of Transportation (DOT) will consider proposals for its Urban Partnership program from Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Miami, New York City, San Diego, San Francisco and Seattle, with plans to announce winners by mid-August.
Part of the DOT's "National Strategy to Reduce Congestion on America's Transportation Network," the program hopes to get Federal, State and local officials working together to reverse what it called "alarming trends of congestion."
"This program supports leaders with the wisdom and courage to develop plans that will cut traffic now, not years from now," said U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary E. Peters.
They'll have to. The Eisenhower Interstate Highway system, completed in the 1960s, has failed to keep pace with a tripling of the number of vehicles operating. Conservative estimates by the DOT say the U.S. loses $168 billion yearly from highway congestion. The nation's trucking system in 2004 lost 243,032,000 hours due to traffic delays, according to the Federal Highway Administration.
Among the Worst Offenders:
· The Los Angeles US-101 and I-405 Interchange, which results in 27 million plus hours of delay each year
· Houston I-610 and I-10 Interchange, which costs 25 million plus hours of delay
· Chicago I-90/94 and I-290 Interchange. Known as the Circle Interchange, it leads to 25 million hours of delay per year
· Phoenix I-10 and SR-51 Interchange causes 22 million delay-hours annually
· Los Angeles I-405 and I-10 Interchange. This San Diego Freeway exchange causes 22 million hours of annual delay.
Traffic traps can be the result of many interrelated causes. Drivers bunch up and leave no space between cars to perform what is called a "snaking action," where each driver has little choice but to do what the car in front is doing. One answer: Timed entry from ramps is being used to pulse the traffic and help alleviate slow downs, as are electronic messaging to alert drivers to best speed, best route and length of delays to be anticipated.
Other causes of delay are a combination of an increased driving population near the traffic trap (think Orange County, Calif.), endless repair work, multiple lane accidents, traffic at peak times and infrastructure breakdown (bridge out, landslide, flooding through poor drainage) and acts of nature. But most of all, traffic is caused by success, says Anthony Downs, an economist and author of Still Stuck in Traffic.
"That is why traffic in high-tech areas fell sharply when the 'Internet bubble' burst in 2000," Downs wrote in The Washington Post last year. More economic activity equals more cars and more driving. "Moreover, since the U.S. population will continue to increase, and we hope it will remain efficient and with rising incomes, congestion will remain a fact of life for most Americans."
He's doubtful the traffic problem can be eradicated. But it can be helped. Downs advocates reducing congestion and bottlenecks through charging drivers a premium to travel during peak traffic times, and turning the profits back into improved highway infrastructures.
DOT is exploring this kind of "congestion pricing" solution, and expressed interest in a controversial proposal by New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg to charge drivers to enter Manhattan during certain times of day. They're also calling for enhanced transit services, increased use of telecommuting and flex scheduling, and advanced technology to help. Other projects include working to ease border congestion and reducing freight congestion at vital trade gateways, especially in Southern California.
"We're asking cities to try something different, innovative and daring when it comes to fighting traffic," Peters said. Those solutions may take a while. But heck, you're not going anywhere.