Study: Phoenix area fares better than other metros when it comes to traffic congestion, but will that continue?

October 29, 2019

A recently released traffic report shows the Phoenix area's traffic congestion isn't nearly as bad as other large metropolitan areas — including ones with smaller populations.

The "Urban Mobility Report" released by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute shows those who commute to work in their cars in the Valley are delayed 62 hours per year, ranking at 18th. Commuters in Greater Los Angeles experience the longest delays with 119 hours of delays per year. 

The study also found Valley commuters waste 26 gallons of fuel in traffic annually, which can mean a potential loss of $990 for the time and fuel wasted in traffic, receiving rankings of 15th and 30th, respectively.

The San Francisco Bay area ranked the highest with 45 gallons of wasted fuel, while Greater Los Angeles took the top spot for congestion cost at a whopping $2,440. 

Detroit consistently ranked lower than Phoenix in most categories, though the differences were minute with 61 delayed hours and 25 wasted gallons of fuel. 

While the time, money and gas loss is much lower than more populous metropolitan areas, those losses could worsen if local, county and state government doesn't further invest in streets, highways and public transportation in the fastest-growing region in the country, Eric Anderson, executive director of the Maricopa Association of Governments, said. 

Paying to stay ahead of transportation needs

Anderson told The Arizona Republic that Maricopa County's explosive growth provides an urgent need to proactively address future transportation infrastructure needs.

"So as we grow from 4.5 million to 6 million-plus, we're going to have to add both road capacity as well as additions to our public transportation system," Anderson said. "And that all takes money."

Voters approved a Proposition 400 in 2004, a half-cent sales tax dedicated to funding transportation projects across the county, though it's set to expire in 2026. 

Anderson expects voters again will be asked whether to extend the half-cent sales tax for future transportation projects — a proposal unofficially known in government circles as "Prop. 500" — within the next several years.

But he also noted Arizona's 18-cent gas tax hasn't increased since 1991 despite the state's ballooning road and highway maintenance costs. 

Rep. Noel Campbell, R-Prescott, introduced a bill earlier this year that would have increased the state gas tax by 25 cents over the next three years. The bill passed the Transportation and Ways & Means committees but ended up dying in the Rules Committee. 

Anderson said Arizona and other states should further tax the electricity used to power electric vehicles as they become more common. He acknowledged that adding taxes isn't popular, but argues it's necessary to address Arizona's ever-growing transportation needs.

"Nobody likes to pay more in taxes," Anderson said. "But you know, once again, people like to drive on decent roads. These things don't just happen. It takes money to build these things."

While traffic congestion is a common problem for large urban areas, Anderson pointed to a positive sign that comes with it — economic activity.

"A lot of people say, 'Well, can't you solve congestion?'" Anderson said. "Congestion actually is a sign of high levels of economic activity. So you can look at areas that have high levels of congestion — thinking New York City —have very high levels of economic activity. So they kind of go hand-in-hand."

Anderson said one sign a city is doing poorly is having an empty downtown — an issue that afflicted Phoenix years ago.

Despite continued investments into light rail and other projects, public transportation ridership has somewhat decreased over the past several years. Anderson said the decrease doesn't come from a lack of support for public transportation, but a sustained period of relatively low gas prices. 

He noted that gas prices peaked at around $5 per gallon several years ago, but have since fallen to under $3 per gallon.

"Price does make a difference in how people choose to travel," Anderson said. "So I think that and just increased economic activity causes people to switch from public transportation to driving their own vehicle again."

But Anderson maintains public transportation — whether it's bus or rail — will see increased ridership in the long term, though plenty of people opt for ride-share services like Uber and Lyft as they're willing to pay more for a faster, more direct option.

Support for light rail varies depending on where you are in the Valley. Cities like Mesa and Tempe have invested in light rail, with numerous stations lining their respective streets. 

Phoenix voters recently voted down a measure that would have diverted funding from creating new light rail extensions to other transportation projects.

But city leaders in Glendale voted to end its plans for a potential 7-mile route to its downtown corridor in December 2017. The route was still in early planning stages and projected to open in 2026.

Although bus routes serve a larger part of the Valley than light rail, Anderson argues some of the routes aren't serviced frequently enough, with buses stopping by every 30 minutes or even hourly when a 15-minute frequency is necessary. 

But then the challenge of rising costs rears its head once more. 

"We have a challenge in how do we increase frequency in many of these routes we have currently operating in the Valley," Anderson said. "That takes money. More buses, more drivers, all those other things."

Then there are areas of the Valley that lack any public transportation options whatsoever despite a need from their respective communities. 

But that too will cost money.