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Washington’s highways getting clogged all over

Tuesday, June 20, 2017by  Jon Osterberg

traffic jam on I-5 through downtown SeattleWashington's urban drivers now endure worse gridlock and longer commute times than ever before, with no cure-all in sight.

The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) annual Congestion Report shows Seattle is not the only city plagued by jammed freeways. In just the past few years, since 2013:

  • Between Olympia and Federal Way, I-5 congestion jumped 60%.

  • Spokane's I-90 evening rush hour stretched 3.3 miles farther and lasts 35 minutes longer.

  • Traffic worsened on I-5 and I-205 in Clark County, with delays increasing 28%.

  • I-405 through Bellevue saw "routine congestion" stretch 5.5 miles farther and last 20% longer.

  • I-90 travel time with routine congestion grew 17% between Issaquah and Seattle.

As reported in The Seattle Times, the I-5 bottleneck through downtown Seattle has no simple fix. The roadway narrows under the Convention Center with no room to expand. Designed to handle 1970s traffic volumes, it maxed out in the 1990s. Where 75,390 vehicles flowed each day in 1976, nearly 221,000 crowd through today.

The reasons for gridlock are really quite simple, but remedies are not. Like all of Washington, Seattle's population has jumped, up to 704,352 in 2016. Only nearby Redmond grew faster. (And being a Redmond resident, believe me, our roads reflect that.) Seattle's economy is booming. Gas prices are down 27% since 2013, so people now drive more.

frustrated woman driving car in trafficWSDOT reports vehicle miles traveled rose not just on urban freeways, but on all roads and state highways, at the highest rate since 2000.

If all of that frustrates you, is there hope for less congestion?

A localized recession might burst the growth bubble. I lived through the big Seattle downturn after Boeing lost federal funding for the supersonic transport (SST) in 1971 and laid off 60,000 jobs. Maybe some other region of the country will emerge as a tech hub, luring away residents … nah, not likely.

Okay, perhaps all these recent transplants will finally recognize, "You know what? It rains here. A lot." And then move away. But again, doubtful.

Maybe the advent of autonomous vehicles will work to our advantage. Since self-driving cars reportedly can follow other vehicles at closer distances, but without crashing, more vehicles can safely fit on our roads.

That's an evolving technology with many interested parties, including insurers. Experts say autonomous cars will be safer because you remove human error from the equation. But they'll likely still cause crashes. Who will be responsible when they do? That's yet to be determined.

traffic crossing I-5 bridge from Vancouver into OregonIn the meantime, crowded roads remain an aggravation, and not just from longer commutes. The risk of a crash grows with increased congestion, and fatality rates per vehicle miles traveled is one factor in determining how much you pay for insurance.

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