Traffic woes continue

The South Western Regional Planning Agency (SWRPA) issued a report revealing what many commuters already know: during rush hour, you can't drive 55 on Interstate 95 and the Merritt Parkway.

"It's something we do to give us some metrics about what's happening," said Alex Karman, senior transportation planner for SWRPA. "Obviously, everyone knows there is congestion and we want data that's both quantitative and easy for the public to understand."

The problem is something that can't be easily fixed with the Connecticut Department of Transportation (DOT) dealing with thousands of vehicles on I-95 and a lack of resources to undergo significant changes to the highway, which is the most traveled in the region. The Merritt Parkway, also known as CT-15, is the second-most traveled.

According to the report, the average speed on the southbound lanes of I-95 and the Merritt during the morning rush is 35 mph and 34 mph, respectively. In the evening rush, the northbound lanes of I-95 slowed even more to 29 mph, while the Merritt proved to be a little faster at 41 mph.

The data was collected in the spring by cars equipped with GPS that sent back travel data every two seconds. However, unlike some rush hour drivers, the test drivers were "discouraged from offensive or aggressive driving, `fighting' traffic, and riding in the fast lane," according to the report.

What the rush hour congestion report does reveal are the most congested areas that thousands of drivers encounter.

"The other thing we try to do with this is indentify the trouble spots," said Karman. "There's traffic everywhere."

Drivers leaving Westport encountered the worst if they're heading south on I-95 in the morning. Between exits 16 and 15 in Norwalk, the average speed plummets to only 15 mph. In the evening, the worst spots are exit 6 in Stamford and between exits 10 and 12 in Darien, both of which also average 15 miles per hour.

On the Merritt Parkway in the morning, the worst southbound area is in Fairfield between exits 48 and 44, with a 16 mph average in the 3.9-mile segment. In the evening, the slowest stretch is between exits 40 and 39 in Norwalk, with an average speed of 17 mph.

Karman said that the data gained from this report can be used by SWRPA to gauge the effectiveness of DOT projects that are aimed to alleviate traffic congestion.

SWRPA is a governmental agency that that serves eight municipalities in Fairfield County, including Westport. Of those eight, Wilton, Weston and New Canaan are the only towns that both I-95 and the Merritt Parkway do not run through, although the parkway lies on the southern border of these towns.

For the DOT, easing congestion on I-95 is an ongoing battle. The interstate was built in the 1950s as a way to streamline driving and link Rhode Island, Connecticut and New York City with the rest of the east coast. The DOT is now taking whatever approaches it can to limit congestion, despite the difficulty that it entails since the area has already been extensively developed.

"I-95 is difficult," said Kevin Nursick, spokesperson for the DOT. "I'm sure you can find 100,000 motorists that drive it everyday that can tell you the same thing."

Widening the highway seems the easiest way to ease congestion, but Nursick said there are numerous obstacles that make it unfeasible.

"In terms of widening I-95, you're talking about a very difficult and expensive proposition," he said. "Because of development, there's not a whole lot of room there."

Nursick said that widening the highway would also entail "numerous property acquisitions" and, he added, the use of eminent domain is "tricky."

Although the DOT is a state entity, federal funding makes some of the project possible. This creates another problem since those funds are uncertain for departments across the country.

"We're always looking to improve infrastructure but also maintaining what we have," said Nursick. "The money will be getting more difficult to get, so from our perspective it's more important to maintain our house, fix our leaking roof, rather than tearing up the kitchen to put in granite countertops."

He added, "You can't neglect the improvements that might be new infrastructure but you need to balance them with preservation."

In Hartford, legislators thought about adding tolls or congestion pricing, which would charge drivers for being on highways during the busiest hours in order to get people off the roads and raise some money in light of a budget deficit. But nothing was settled this year.

These problems don't bode well for commuters hoping to have their drives shortened to a reasonable amount of time, but the DOT does have some options that help a little.

One of those is the creation of high-speed "change lanes" in the congested area of exits 11-13 in Darien. The project, about 60-70 percent complete, will add an extra lane between the exits, much like the one in Norwalk between exits 15 and 16.

"Speed change lanes, in the words of the governor, can be referred to as `congestion busters,' " said Nursick.

The lanes make it easier for cars to get on and off the highway, but, Nursick noted, that doesn't solve the core problem of there being simply too many cars. The DOT has been aiming to wean drivers to get off the roads and into the trains. Rising gas prices have helped in this regard.

All the Metro-North lines saw a record ridership of 84.2 million in 2008, but that number hasn't had a significant dent in congestion. Ridership for the lines east of the Hudson River increased 3.8 percent from 2007 to 2008.

"We want to get people out of these single occupancy vehicles and get them into mass transit," said Nursick, adding, "You have to look at it from a holistic perspective."

Kate Jonas, who has been commuting by train to New York City from Westport, doesn't need any convincing on the best way to get to work. She has been taking the train for 23 years.

"It's a much more efficient use of time. You can get a lot more time," said Jonas, noting how rail commuters can read, do work on their laptops or get some sleep. She added, "It's more reliable in bad weather."

For a short while, she had to commute to Greenwich, but she couldn't always take the train.

"It was terrible," she said. There was no good commuting option. "That commute could have been 20 minutes to an hour. The unpredictably was stressful," Jonas said.

Now, she's back into her New York City commute and she's noticed that the trains have been more crowded as of late. Getting a seat can sometimes be difficult, but she still likes it a lot more than having to drive.

"You do get used to [taking the train] everyday," she said.