Image: Traffic
Jacquelyn Martin  /  AP
Washington D.C.-Arlington, Va-Alexandria, Va., is fourth on the list, up from sixth in 2008. Average speed during the 32 hours a week of congestion: 14 mph.
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updated 3/6/2010 10:45:50 AM ET 2010-03-06T15:45:50

The Great Recession cleared the country's roads, but a recovering economy and stimulus-fed construction projects will lead to worse delays.

Got satellite radio in your car? Now might be a good time to think about installing it, as you're likely to be spending more time in traffic as the economy recovers.

Although high gas prices and lost jobs during the 2007-2009 recession led to a decrease in the number of Americans on the road, congestion is poised to increase as workers return to the nation's highways and stimulus-funded construction projects create bottlenecks. That's according to the latest National Traffic Scorecard from Inrix, a Microsoft spinoff that tracks congestion across the country using GPS data from commercial vehicles.

(Msnbc.com is a joint-venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)

"We've turned the clock back on congestion," says Rick Schuman, the scorecard's author, pointing to the fact that 75 of the country's largest 100 metro areas had less congestion in 2009 than they did in 2006. Nevertheless, as the economy began to recover at the end of 2009, so did congestion.

What Inrix calls the "travel time tax" — the extra time added onto a typical trip because of congestion — rose from 8 percent to 10 percent between August and October 2009. Some of that change is seasonal, but much of it is linked to the GDP increases during that time, says Schuman. More congestion will likely return to the country's roads as the recovery continues.

"Employment is the biggest impetus for traffic congestion," says Schuman. "If jobs come back slowly, congestion will come back slowly. If employment snaps back, we'll be back on the old curve," he says, referring to the trend of rising congestion before 2008.

In 2007, the latest year for which a figure is available, congestion cost Americans $87 billion, according to the Texas Transportation Institute.

Drivers in the Los Angeles area, which has the worst traffic in the country according to the report, faced a travel time tax of 35 percent in 2009. That figure peaked for Los Angeles in 2007 at 45 percent before falling to 33 percent in 2008.

Inrix identifies traffic congestion by gathering location and speed data from 1.7 million commercial vehicles equipped with GPS tracking devices, as well as from state departments of transportation.

By comparing that information — which amounts to billions of data points over 110,000 miles of major highways in the country's 100 largest census-defined metropolitan statistical areas — to free-flow speeds, Inrix computes its travel time tax. That index represents the percentage increase in travel time that a driver encounters during congested periods compared to travel time at free flow.

To compile this ranking, Inrix multiplied each highway segment's 2009 travel time tax by that segment's length to create a measure of likely driver pain.

Construction had a substantial impact on traffic in 2009. Every new bottleneck in Inrix's report is construction-related and, according to Schuman, at least half were related to construction funded by last year's federal stimulus program, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

The results of this year's study illustrate the geographical unevenness of the recession. The Detroit area, where the auto industry's troubles have cut total employment by more than 220,000 jobs since 2007, slipped from 18th to 27th place on Inrix's ranking of city congestion (the population of its metropolitan statistical area ranks 11th in the country). With fewer workers commuting to jobs, time lost to congestion there fell by more than 30 percent in 2009.

Meanwhile, congestion in the Washington-Baltimore region worsened as commuters drove to new government-related jobs. That area's ranking rose to fourth place from sixth last year, and time lost to congestion increased by 10 percent on a typical trip.

There were no changes in the order of the top three cities — Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago — this year, however. Bottlenecks there are "matters of chronic under-capacity," says Schuman. The worst single bottleneck in the country this year was the same as last year's: New York's Cross-Bronx Expressway, which is congested for 94 hours per week on average, where it meets the Bronx River Parkway at exit 4B.

Other bottlenecks on last year's list have dropped off the top 100 entirely. In 2008 drivers in Marin County, Calif., endured the fourth-worst tie-up in the country where the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge (Interstate 580) meets Route 101. The California Department of Transportation reconfigured the interchange and widened Route 101, and weekly hours of congestion there fell from 65 to 19 in 2009.

Two big economic drivers influence congestion: Employment and gas prices. Both have seen big swings in the last two years, and through much of the recession, the two factors were opposed. The price of regular gasoline peaked above $4 per gallon in July 2008, according to the Energy Information Administration, but fell sharply over the following five months, bottoming at $1.59 at the end of December 2008.

Over the same period, the national unemployment rate rose from 5.8 percent to 7.4 percent (it finally peaked at 10.1 percent in October 2009). The drop in congestion in early 2008 that began as motorists confronted high gas prices continued as would-be commuters lost their jobs. "People really changed their behavior when fuel prices went up," says Schuman. "The economy didn't tank until October of 2008, but congestion was already abating because of the fuel price spike."

Inrix compiles its data in real time to find traffic jams. It also analyzes the data to find patterns in traffic and sends its findings to in-car navigation systems like those in Fords, BMWs, and Volvos, that route drivers around predicted bottlenecks.

© 2012 Forbes.com

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