Study: Twin Cities traffic congestion still among worst

A new study by a national transportation group confirms what metro area drivers already know, as well as the findings of a landmark American Experiment traffic congestion study. The Twin Cities ranks as one of the most congested metro areas in the nation — 14th — and it appears to have gotten no better since the release of American Experiment’s 2017 “Twin Cities Traffic Congestion: It’s No Accident” report.

The new findings were broken down by the Star Tribune’s traffic expert, Tim Harlow.

On average, motorists in Minnesota’s metro areas putter along 56% of the time during peak hours, making the amount of time that routes such as Interstates 35W, 35E, 94, 494 and 694 are clogged up the 14th highest in the nation, according to the national transportation research nonprofit, which released its findings in “America’s Interstate Highway System at 65: Meeting America’s Transportation Needs with a Reliable, Safe & Well-Maintained National Highway Network.”

It appears not much has changed since American Experiment’s President John Hinderaker summarized the results of our report, compiled by transportation expert Randal O’Toole.

Residents of urban areas comparable to the Twin Cities enjoy much greater mobility. Kansas City, for example, has 1,320 lane miles of freeway per million residents. The Twin Cities have only 670 freeway lane miles per million people, a figure that has shrunk since 1982. As a result, average driving speed in the Kansas City metro area is 40.1 miles per hour, compared with 29.4 mph in the Twin Cities.

• Congestion costs the Twin Cities metro area nearly $4 billion per year in wasted time and increased business costs.

The latest findings cover the year 2019, before the pandemic curtailed commerce. Another potential factor in slowing down traffic flow in the metro area? The report finds the Twin Cities have some of the nation’s most poorly maintained roadways.

The report released this summer also found the state has some of the worst freeway pavement conditions, with 4% of interstates rated in poor condition and 3% of bridges rated as structurally poor or deficient — all of that as drivers took to freeways more often. The number of miles motorists logged in Minnesota rose 9% from 2000 to 2019, creating a freeway system that was the 20th busiest in the nation. State data show usage is approaching pre-pandemic levels.

As the aging system’s foundations continue to deteriorate, most freeways, bridges and interchanges across the nation will need to be rebuilt or replaced, TRIP said in its report.

“Unfortunately, funding levels for our state highways and bridges has not kept up, and we’ve seen the resulting deterioration, congestion and safety problems,” said Margaret Donahoe, executive director of the Minnesota Transportation Alliance. “With $39 billion needed to adequately support the state’s businesses and residents, but only $21 billion in revenue, it’s no surprise that Minnesota’s interstate system is falling behind.”

The Center’s report acknowledges underfunding as a factor. Yet that underfunding stems largely from state policy favoring alternative modes of transportation at the expense of roads and bridges, dating back to the Dayton administration.

Why have the Twin Cities done so poorly when it comes to managing traffic? A lack of funding is a leading cause of gridlock. We know that when Gov. Tim Pawlenty boosted funding in 2004, a substantial increase in freeway lane miles followed, which provided meaningful congestion relief.

While funding is an issue, relieving congestion is no longer a key priority for state agencies. The Metropolitan Council’s 2030 transportation plan said: “The Council recognizes that congestion will not be eliminated or significantly reduced in the Metropolitan Area.” Instead of reducing congestion on the roads, the Met Council wants to take advantage of horrific commute times to force Twin Cities residents onto trains, buses and bicycles.

The TRIP report emphasizes the critical importance of interstate infrastructure to the local and state economy, a reminder that failing to maintain and increase the efficiency of our roadways costs everyone.

Increasingly, companies are looking at the quality of a region’s transportation system when deciding where to re-locate or expand. Regions with congested or poorly maintained roads may see businesses locate to areas with a smoother, more efficient and more modern transportation system.