According to a new interactive tool from the Pew Charitable Trusts, Virginia has the highest average commute time in the south at 27.9.
This beats out even Georgia and it’s notoriously awful Atlanta traffic. Georgia ranks a full minute shorter at 26.9 minutes.
Most of this, we know, is due to congestion around the northern Virginia area, though we shouldn’t entirely discount the time it takes a lot of rural workers to get to their jobs in far-flung urban centers. Roanoke, for example, draws commuters from as far south as Martinsville, Virginia Tech employs folks from West Virginia, and Roanoke and Lynchburg have about 11,000 people a day commuting between the two MSAs at an hour per one-way trip.
That said, Northern Virginia is where the population is in the state, and its where most of the congestion is, with commute times over relatively short distances taking up an hour or more each way. If you think that this is just a Northern Virginia problem, though, you’d be wrong.
I mentioned in an earlier post that the U.S. has a tendency to build its way out of congestion. And I’ve also written on the extreme costs of our heavily subsidized highways, costs not covered – by a significant shortfall – by gas taxes and other transportation fees. So long as this remains the case, high-population, high-congestion areas like Northern Virginia run the risk of sucking up the lion’s share of a state’s transportation dollars.
I’m not saying it doesn’t make sense to focus resources where the bulk of the people and economic activity is, but the payback on pure construction projects – to the extent that there is one – is relatively short. It never takes very long for new road capacity to fill up – sometimes in as little as a few months – and now you’re stuck with the maintenance costs of new infrastructure having made relatively small gains, if any, in the efficiency of the system.
Without a system that better manages demand – some mix of transportation alternatives and smart growth policies – this cycle becomes unsustainable, leaving not only Northern Virginia with a dysfunctional transportation network that slows people and economic activity down, but the rest of the state on the hook feeding the highway beast.