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Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Salt Lake residents may think their commute is difficult, but compared to Washington or New York, a new congestion report shows the city has relatively open roads.

SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake residents may think their commute is difficult, but compared to Washington or New York, a new congestion report shows the city has relatively open roads.

In the report, conducted by the Texas A&M University Transportation Institute, Salt Lake ranks 84th in the nation. And in this race, coming in last is best.

The average Salt Lake commuter burns 30 hours and 13 gallons of gas each year sitting in traffic, compared to 67 hours and 32 gallons in Washington, D.C. Utah came in 61st in terms of costs per commuter.

Analysts say the average U.S. driver will spend an additional seven hours in traffic each year by 2020 and waste six more gallons of gas.

The findings were drawn from Inrix, a traffic information provider that gathers data on millions of moving vehicles across the country. The institute based the calculations on a new meter called the Planning Time Index, which measures how much extra time is required to reach a destination, specific to each city. It accounts for typical weather conditions and city events or construction, Lomax said.

“The PTI is based on the notion that your boss will let you be late to work one time a month, but you’ve got to be on time the other 19 days,” said Tom Lomax, one of the authors of the study.

“If it took 10 minutes to travel in light traffic, 10 would be multiplied by the PTI, 3.7, which would tell you that you should allow for nearly 30 minutes during rush hour,” Lomax said. “Sometimes the inability to gauge how far in advance one should leave can be more frustrating than the actual traffic.”

Salt Lake City's Planning Time Index is 2.02, a good number compared to Washington’s 5.72 and even Baltimore’s 3.81.

The city’s high ranking is attributed to several factors, said Robert Miles, the region 2 traffic operations engineer at the Utah Department of Transportation. In addition to public transportation such as TRAX and FrontRunner, carpool lanes and metered freeway on-ramps help moderate traffic flow, Miles said.

Increasing traffic numbers are not so much a factor of population growth, Miles said. “Each one of us travels more vehicle miles per year. People are just driving more every day.”

UDOT is constantly looking for new ways to overcome that extra demand on the system.

“It’s not always as simple as add more lanes, add more lanes,” Miles said. “We have to be more creative and smarter than that.”

Incident management teams work with UHP and UTA in efforts such as clearing crashes quickly. Advertising projects and new ideas such as turn intersections, continuous flow intersections and divergent diamond interchanges help minimize the impacts of construction to the traveling public. 

“We make decisions based upon user costs and the impact they have on people's lives and on the state's economy,” Miles said. “We move a bridge in because it's cheaper, user cost-wise.”

Reducing traffic congestion begins with each individual, Miles said. He suggested reducing the number of trips commuters make, consolidating by carpooling or looking at alternative methods to make the trip and paying attention to the tools out there. Changing the commute by 20 minutes earlier or 20 minutes later can make a difference in getting off those traditional commute hours, Miles said.

“We’ll try to help people get to where they need to go as effectively as possible and if we all work together, we’ll all have a better system.”

Brad Orr of Weber plans work around traffic availability.

“The congestion can get pretty tight on I-15, so I avoid it by planning my sales calls around it,” Orr said. “Ever since Legacy (Highway) opened a couple of years ago, my 40-mile commute has been smooth sailing.”

Alexis Jones, who commutes from Salt Lake City to Provo, tries to leave early when it’s snowing.

“I leave a little later than the average morning commute,” Jones said. “On the days that it’s snowed a lot, the commute has been terrible, even leaving late.” Jones said the commute can almost double on days when the weather is bad.

For Ben Parkhurst of Orem, FrontRunner can be an ideal means of solving the traffic problem.

“A couple of areas get really congested on I-15 during rush hour, but when you’re on the train, you whiz past everything at 75 mph,” Parkhurst said. “It’s nice when you’ve been stuck in that traffic hundreds of times.”

Compared to other states, Utah’s roadways are well-designed, says Bob Winder, a native of Portland, Ore., who now lives in South Jordan.

“I leave early to avoid rush hour and can get downtown in 15 to 20 minutes,” Winder said. “Since the freeway expansion during the Olympics, the commute is not too bad.”

For Steve Anderson, a Logan resident who commutes once a week to Salt Lake City, he believes Cache County roads could use some work.

“Logan is crazy,” Anderson said. “Their one main street sees traffic from Preston, Idaho Falls and Nimph. I’d like to see some of Salt Lake’s great road design over there.”

E-mail: rlowry@desnews.com