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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Wednesday, September 8, 2004

Honolulu traffic on road to less gridlock, study says

 •  Chart: Worst and best areas for drivers

By Mike Leidemann
Advertiser Transportation Writer

Honolulu traffic is getting better all the time. That's right: better!

Traffic is being slowed by construction on Fort Weaver Road, but a nationwide study indicates that such projects have helped lessen congestion on O'ahu roads over the long term.

Photos by Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

Although H-1 often can seem like a parking lot during rush hour, a nationwide study says that Honolulu drivers spend 18 hours annually stuck in traffic, far less than the 46 hours of the average Mainland driver.
At least, that's the conclusion of a new nationwide study that says congestion on Honolulu's highways and streets has been declining for the past 10 years.

The average Honolulu driver spends far less time stuck in traffic (18 hours per year) than the national average (46 hours), according to the latest annual Urban Mobility Report from the Texas Transportation Institute, the nation's leading authority on traffic problems.

O'ahu commuter Randy Puaatuua, 21, said he's not surprised by how many hours drivers spend going nowhere. What surprises him is that the study says Hono-lulu drivers spend about 12 hours less stuck in traffic than they did in 1992.

"I wouldn't believe it at all," said the mortgage loan officer, who commutes to Honolulu from Pearl City every day.

Another statistic: Drivers here waste 40 percent less time in traffic jams than they did 10 years ago, according to the report.

"Nobody can believe it, but that's what the statistics say," said Department of Transportation spokesman Scott Ishikawa. "Everybody's asking, 'How can this be?' "

The answer, it turns out, might be a combination of large, expensive road projects completed a decade earlier and smaller-scale projects launched in recent years.

According to the report, Honolulu congestion peaked in 1992, when each driver spent an average of 30 hours a year stuck in traffic.

Shortly after that, the state completed several major roadway projects, including the opening of H-3 Freeway and the widening of Kalaniana'ole Highway in East O'ahu. Overall congestion has been on the decline since then, according to the report, which has been ranking congestion in cities across the nation since 1982.

"You can see where those big projects made a difference, at least for East Honolulu and Windward O'ahu residents," Ishikawa said.

There's little doubt, however, that congestion has worsened in other parts of the island, especially in West O'ahu, where tens of thousands of new homes have been built in the past decade.

With little money or room to build major new highways in that area, local officials have concentrated efforts in recent years on small-scale, "out-of-the-box" projects to — at the least — keep congestion from getting any worse, Ishikawa said.

Those projects include synchronizing traffic signals, providing more electronic information about traffic problems, widening roads when possible, and adding contraflow and zipper lanes, Ishikawa said.

University of Hawai'i engineering professor Panos Prevedouros warned that some of the report's statistics can be misleading. "I can't fathom any reasons why congestion should be getting less," he said. "This might be a case of how aggregate statistics can end up being misleading."

Prevedouros suggested that local officials might not be counting all of the traffic congestion, or counting it in the wrong places.

"A lot could depend on how and where we're recording the information," he said. "We may not have enough counting stations out in the west, where the traffic is the heaviest. We have to question just how wide a net we are casting." he said.

He also noted that 2002 was a year of significant economic and tourism downturn, which may have contributed to fewer cars being on the road then.

Of the 85 cities in the latest survey, Honolulu ranked 56th in terms of overall congestion.

Drivers in Los Angeles had it the worst, with commuters frittering away an average of 93 hours in rush-hour slowdowns. Dallas showed the greatest leap in congestion from 13 hours annually in 1982 to 61 hours annually in 2002.

The institute put the total cost of traffic congestion on O'ahu at $123 million for 2002, which breaks down to about $330 for each peak-hour traveler or $175 for every man, woman and child on the island.

The delay costs includes 12 million gallons of additional fuel that were consumed, the study said. With each gallon of fuel being assigned a value of $1.72, that means about $21 million went up in smoke during traffic delays on O'ahu two years ago.

It could have been worse.

For the first time this year, the report looked at the amount of congestion saved by local transportation projects. The biggest time-saver in Honolulu, the report said, was its extensive bus system. Without that, automobile drivers would have spent an extra 14 hours a year stuck in traffic jams, the report said.

Advertiser staff writer David Waite and The Associated Press contributed to this report. Reach Mike Leidemann at 525-5460 or mleidemann@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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