Salesman Mark Rawson travels daily from his Joshua home to points across Dallas-Fort Worth. He's a road warrior, and he considers the highway system "a bad joke."
"In this area, they wait until it's too late, and then when they finally do start the projects, the nightmare gets even worse," he said. He's particularly peeved about barriers installed for road work near Interstate 35W and Northeast Loop 820, as well as along Texas 121/183 in Northeast Tarrant County.
North Texas has the fifth-worst congestion in the United States, by fuel wasted and time lost by commuters. That ranking is unchanged from last year, according to the 2011 Urban Mobility Report released Tuesday by the Texas Transportation Institute. Despite the region's population growth, road conditions have been mitigated by high unemployment, which puts fewer motorists on the roads.
But the region is also increasing its road capacity, with the long-awaited construction of several big-dollar highway projects, including the North Tarrant Express in Northeast Tarrant County and the DFW Connector in Grapevine.
The study, published nearly every year by the institute at Texas A&M University, seeks to quantify the impact of the traffic nightmare experienced by Rawson and millions of drivers like him across the U.S. It is based on driving that took place in 2010.
Not just rush hour anymore
The institute ranked congestion in 439 U.S. urban areas. It found that the nation's worsening traffic problems have been offset somewhat by a poor economy. But it also said that not enough is being done to upgrade roads and bridges, to properly handle traffic and spur job growth as the economy eventually improves.
"If you invest in roads and transit, you get better service and access to more jobs," said Tim Lomax, one of the study authors.
The report also found that gridlock is no longer a problem reserved for "rush hour" -- which is a misnomer anyway in North Texas, where peak congestion now lasts five hours a day. Forty percent of congestion happens midday and at night -- outside the traditional rush hours.
Even so, a closer look at some of the numbers shows that Metroplex traffic has improved slightly in many categories, even as the region's population has swelled to 5.2 million people, up from 5 million in 2009 and 4.7 million in 2005.
For example, drivers in Dallas-Fort Worth lost an average of 45 hours in traffic last year, but that was down from 46 hours in 2009. They also wasted 22 gallons of fuel, down from 23 gallons in 2009.
Last year, North Texas drivers lost an average of $924 to traffic congestion. Nationally, motorists lost an average of $713 last year, but that's down from a peak of $814 in 2005.
Public transit on the decline
Despite those slivers of good news, several motorists expressed frustration about the continuing headaches.
"What the heck is going on on 183 [in Irving] in the mornings? It is terrible," a woman identifying herself as Pirategirl wrote in a comment on star-telegram.com. "It's just ridiculous. I'd have to leave my house at 7 in the morning just to get to work by 8:30. It's gotten worse. It never used to be this bad. And, there's a wreck just about every day."
David A. Bedford of southwest Fort Worth takes a bus to his job at Texas Christian University, where he teaches Spanish.
He blames the continuing crush of traffic on the state's policy of building roads as a primary solution to congestion.
"The increase in traffic is due primarily to the building of more and bigger roads," Bedford said. "The highways create traffic. Any freeway one builds will be clogged in no time."
Instead, Bedford argues, planners should focus on public transportation, which he said is "cheaper, faster, more relaxed than driving."
Buses, trains and other forms of public transit now account for 72.7 million passenger trips per year in Dallas-Fort Worth. Public transit use has steadily declined since 2007, even amid high gas prices.
In 2007, the Metroplex recorded a record 82.2 million trips. Since then, transportation agencies such as the Fort Worth Transportation Authority and Dallas Area Rapid Transit have cut back routes and other services to meet budget constraints.
Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796