Traffic congestion costs the US economy billions in wasted time, productivity, and fuel. It also negatively affects quality of life and constrains potential growth. The past decade of expansion has pushed congestion to the highest level since the Texas A&M Transportation Institute began tracking it in its Urban Mobility Report in the early 1980s. The 2019 version was recently released, with data for 2017.

The report found that urban Americans wasted an extra 8.8 billion hours and 3.3 billion gallons of fuel due to congestion, with a direct price tag of $166 billion. Trucks comprise about seven percent of traffic, but 12 percent of congestion costs ($21 billion). The average auto commuter spends 54 hours in congestion and wastes 21 gallons of fuel, with an estimated cost of $1,010.

Delays have risen markedly over the past decades despite investments in additional infrastructure and other initiatives. In 1987, average delays across the nation were 25 hours per commuter. By 1997, delay hours climbed to 36, increasing to 43 in 2007 and 54 in 2017.

The issue is generally most pronounced in the nation’s largest population centers, though many smaller areas are also affected. The worst traffic issues are in the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim area, where commuters spend an average of 119 hours per year in traffic delays. In Texas, the Houston area ranks ninth nationwide with 75 hours of delays per commuter per year. Dallas-Fort Worth, with 67 hours, ranks thirteenth. Austin is fourteenth at 66, worse than a number of cities with notably larger populations. San Antonio is 34 nationally, with an average of 51 hours of delays, with El Paso, Beaumont, McAllen, and Corpus Christi in the 38-to-41-hour range.

In some cases, economic conditions can cause overcrowding, such as in the Midland and Odessa area, where oilfield activity in the Permian Basin has dramatically increased traffic levels. Rapidly growing communities outside the urban core may also face delays as bottlenecks develop.

The report included some additional troubling findings, such as the fact that about a third of delays happen outside of peak hours. Variation in congestion is also an issue, with commuters unable to reliably plan for the length of time a trip will require. Even ‘rush hour’ is stretching to be several hours. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to avoid delays.

A variety of initiatives, including more lane-miles, varying toll rates, technological aids, mass transit expansion, and flexible schedules for workers may help curtail congestion. Research by my firm has shown that investments in transportation infrastructure provide an annual return to the economy of more than 30 percent, yet budgetary commitments are often lacking. It is a tough issue, but the current trend is in essence a tax levied on economic growth.

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above guest column shows Loop 610 in Houston, Texas. According to studies, it is the most congested highway in Texas. (Photo credit: ABC 13)