LAWRENCEVILLE - Metro Atlantans spend among the most time in the nation stuck in traffic.
According to a study released Tuesday, local drivers are delayed by congestion for 60 hours each year, tied with San Francisco and Washington, D.C. Only Los Angeles, with a 72-hour annual delay, was more backed up.
Despite ranking second for the fourth consecutive year, Clean Air Campaign spokeswoman Tracy Paden said the number of hours commuters waste in traffic has been on a steady decline since it peaked at 78 hours annually per driver in 1998. From 1996 to 2001, Atlanta was first in terms of annual per-person delay.
The measure does not include all commute time, just time wasted. Metro Atlantans also wasted 44 gallons of gas and $1,177 because they were stuck in traffic in 2005, the last year for which data is available.
"It's definitely an issue," Atlanta Regional Commission transportation planner Kofi Wakhisi said. "We want to improve it, but the world's not ending at this point. It will if we don't change it."
The data comes from the Annual Urban Mobility Report, a study conducted by the Texas Transportation Institute. It also puts Atlanta's travel time index as the 11th-worst in the nation and the congestion cost at sixth-worst.
Wakhisi said the numbers aren't so bad when the region's rapid growth is considered. But if the trends continue unabated, he said, traffic could become unmanageable. That could be detrimental for the region's economy.
Changes in the ARC's regional transportation plan, which is due to be adopted later this month, would have some impact on the rate of congestion growth, Wakhisi said.
"Everyone has their own threshold, their own standards. Congestion will get worse as employment and population increase," he said. "It will still increase, but it will increase at a slower rate, versus if we did nothing."
Kevin Green, executive director of the Clean Air Campaign, said that organization has had some success in reducing congestion through its Cash for Commuters program, which gives drivers $3 a day for up to 180 days if they try alternate commutes. Green estimated the program had saved 56 million miles from being driven.
Green said he doesn't expect a lull in the amount of congestion, but thinks changes like more carpoolers - Gwinnett had 35 percent more from 2005 to 2006, according to Census data - will help make the situation better.
"Atlanta's growth is robust, and traffic congestion is robust as well," he said. "I don't think we can expect that to change any time soon. It makes sense to do what we can to reduce congestion."
Paden said some people are taking commute times into account when they look for new jobs or new homes, which could explain some of the reduction in wasted travel times. Russell McCreary, a Suwanee resident who commutes to Alpharetta, said his decision to move to Roswell was affected, in part, by his hour-long commute.
McCreary has carpooled to work since 2005 and said he thinks more people will start to do so when it becomes practical for them.
"I don't see how it could get that much more congested," he said. "There's bumper-to-bumper traffic, going five miles per hour on the highway. I don't think it can get very much worse than that."
Wakhisi said one of the major thoroughfares for Gwinnett commuters - Interstate 85, between Interstate 285 and Ga. Highway 316 - is tied with the downtown connector for the most congested segment of freeway in the region. The county and its commuters definitely have an impact on traffic in the region, he said.
"I wouldn't characterize it as horrible," he said. "It's what's to be expected for a very large area that's growing this fast."