I wasted 82 hours of my life in the past year sitting in traffic in Southern California. Each of us did. We wasted it sitting in our cars with a bunch of other schmucks on the freeway, listening to some dork on the radio as the minutes slipped away. That's three and a half days. Gone.
The time was lost waiting. . . . Waiting. . . . Now speeding up a bit. . . . No, gotta slow down now. . . . Stopping. . . . Waiting. . . . Watching the cars on the left roll by. . . . Okay, now speeding up again. . . . Stop! . . . Now watching the cars on the right stop. . . . Still waiting. . . . Why the hell won't that guy go any faster?! . . . Waiting some more. . . . Okay, now I can go. . . . Slowly. . . . Slowly. . . . Damn, gotta stop again. . . . Waiting again. . . . Waiting as the rest of the cars proceed. . . . Waiting. . . .
Collectively, the nation's drivers lost more than 8 billion hours last year to traffic congestion. Add up the costs—for gasoline, additional car maintenance and lost productivity—and the nation lost between $70 billion and $80 billion, according to the Texas Transportation Institute. That's each year for the past decade.
Think of it as China's new 18,000-megawatt dam, the entire National Missile Defense program or the value of last year's historic Exxon-Mobil merger. A huge wad of cash burned each year, for no good reason.
It's not surprising that this fact worries local companies. An Orange County Register survey of 250 business owners earlier this month found that 96 percent of the county's companies felt that traffic was a problem—for nearly half of them, "a big problem."
As it should be: some part of that $70 billion or so could have been tallied up in their profits last year. Could have, of course, had the nation's workers used an effective, efficient commuter transportation system.
But we have nothing like that in Orange County. Here, workers spend hours and hours each day stuck on massive freeways that sit virtually idle during the evening. Here, massive and hideously expensive toll roads slip closer and closer to financial collapse as ridership consistently fails to meet even the most conservative expectations.
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Here, according to a new traffic study, each day's "rush hour" will nearly double, from its current four hours to seven hours over the next 20 years. The Riverside Freeway alone is expected to handle a quarter of a million new daily commuters.
North County cities will weather this traffic storm first, as more and more residents of San Bernardino and Riverside counties head into Orange County to take advantage of our job growth. Improvements to handle this influx should cost $1.3 billion—if county officials can ever muster the political support to send new roads slashing through Chino Hills and Tonner Canyon. Other improvements, like an intercounty light-rail line and vastly expanded bus service, get minimal mention.
But the county's supervisors continue to tell us that an international airport will solve our transportation woes—that spending billions on new runways and new hangars and new maintenance shops and new parking garages and a new terminal at El Toro will see us through into the next century.
If they get their way, we'll all be watching the next century go by from the front seat of our cars.