Traffic Congestion Cost Put at $500 Million, 400,000 Hours

United Press International

A state study has revealed that traffic congestion is costing California commuters an estimated 400,000 hours and $500 million each year because of stop-and-go conditions on 60% of city freeways.

The Golden State--once home of the world's most modern and extensive freeway system--now ranks 49th among the 50 states in its per-capita transportation spending, the California Transportation Commission said in a report to the Legislature.

'Bound to Worsen'

It warned that "general traffic conditions are bound to worsen rather than improve" as construction dollars continue to lag behind increases in freeway use.

"During the last 20 years, from 1966 to 1986, California's investment in its highway system has not kept pace with growth in the demand placed on the system by the public," the agency said in its annual report.

Dwindling dollars spent on freeway construction have been further eroded by inflation, the agency said, but the number of motorists, vehicles and miles driven each year have soared.

"The state highway program during the 1950s and 1960s built a highway system that was planned to handle 20 years of growth. Progress toward the planned system slowed considerably by 1970, and it has even now only been about half finished," the commission said.

"With 400,000 vehicle hours of delay statewide costing California commuters an estimated $500 million annually, and with stop-and-go traffic conditions on 60% of the urban freeways," it added, "it is apparent that in most urban areas of California there is virtually no more excess peak-hour highway capacity."

Traffic engineers have long been aware of the state's looming congestion problems, but the clogged highways "have come quickly upon the driving public," the commission said.

Californians are willing to drive close together at fairly high speeds in heavy traffic until a freeway reaches 85% or 90% of capacity, when the addition of only one or two cars per lane per minute can bog the whole freeway down, it said.

Happens in Few Months

"The transition from 50 m.p.h. speed to stop-and-go traffic congestion can happen over a period of only a few months," it said, as more motorists begin using heavily traveled freeway routes.

"Isolated bottlenecks and short 10-minute periods of congestion in just a few years became widespread congestion for the whole peak period, morning and afternoon."

All states experienced declines in their transportation funding during the oil crisis and high inflation of the 1970s, but by 1985 most states had recovered from those setbacks, the report said. In California, state spending on transportation remains about 35% of earlier levels.

Transportation spending reached a low during the administration of Democratic Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. in 1979, the year voters approved a state spending limit that restricts the amount of increase permitted in government budgets to the growth of inflation and population.

Matching new freeway construction with traffic growth would require an increase of more than $1 billion annually in the $1 billion per year that now is being spent, mostly in shrinking federal funds, the agency said.

It recommended use of bond money to finance the highway program, since bond payments are not covered by the spending limit.

Tax crusader Paul Gann, author of the spending-limit initiative, has proposed another initiative for the June ballot that would exempt sales taxes paid on gasoline and vehicles from the spending limit to free $600 million more for highway building.

Gov. George Deukmejian has proposed a $1-billion transportation bond issue for this year's ballot.

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