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Study finds we lose 2 days a year to commuting
By Joseph Ryan | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 9/19/2007 12:16 AM

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What would you do with an extra 46 hours this year?

Relax with the family?

Extend that vacation?

Sleep in?

Instead, you spend that much time or more sitting in the car staring at bumpers in front of you, fuming over the traffic and wondering why politicians let the roads get so bad.

The average Chicago-area driver spent nearly the equivalent of two whole days in 2005 crawling along the roads, according to an annual study by the Texas Transportation Institute. That is about 11 more hours than in 2001.

Chicago, continually third-worst in the nation for traffic jams, also holds the dubious distinction of having the most unpredictable traffic.

So, to get somewhere on time, such as a job interview, you have to allow twice as much time as it normally would take just to be sure you're punctual. The study also says drivers in Chicago spend more time in rush hour -- at eight hours a day -- than almost any other city.

This quantification of the daily trials of commuters underscores one increasingly pressing fact: too many drivers on too few roads.

Addressing the problem is going to take some big ideas that may anger some drivers, experts say.

"Congestion is only getting worse," said Joseph Schwieterman, director of DePaul University's Chaddick Institute of Metropolitan Development. "It certainly imposes a huge cost on drivers and it makes planning almost impossible."

The possible solutions range from giving developers more subsidies for building near transit to raising tolls during rush hour to nudge drivers into less-crowded time slots. Tollway officials are studying the latter idea.

New car-pool lanes, tolling currently free roads and turning over roads to corporations also need to be considered, transportation officials say. After all, Chicago is woefully behind the nation in carpooling and it came in ninth for traffic management.

Yet, for decades these ideas have been shunned by Chicago-area politicians and commuters even as they have been embraced by other cities.

Meanwhile, the need has grown and major expansion in roads and transit has been sparse.

For example, the I-355 southern extension from Bolingbrook to Mokena set to open in November is the first new area expressway in nearly 20 years. During that time, the rush hour has grown by two hours and the Chicago area has moved from having the seventh-worst travel times in the nation to the second-worst, the study shows.

"We can't expect that the same old solutions are going to bring us something different," said Randy Blankenhorn, director of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.

The Chicago area will need to add 300 new lane-miles of road every year just to keep traffic congestion at its current, albeit frustrating, levels, the study says. That would be like adding five new I-355 southern extensions a year.

It is probably an impossible goal, Blankenhorn said, especially given the current funding levels. The state has been without major public works funding since at least 2004.

Experts also note that building more roads alone won't lessen traffic. Transit improvements also must be a key part of the solution, said Michael McLaughlin, a transportation expert with the Metropolitan Planning Council.

If all of the area's buses and trains were to disappear overnight, the study shows, each driver in the region would add nearly nine hours a year to the time he or she wastes in traffic. Chicago ranks second in the nation for mass transit options, just behind New York and its labyrinth of subway tunnels.

Lawmakers now are debating how to keep the transit system running as officials at Pace, Metra and the CTA struggle with shortfalls amounting up to 16 percent of their budgets.