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Interstate 580 traffic starts to stack up for the afternoon commute on Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2007, in Pleasanton, Calif. A Texas A&M study called the Urban Mobility Report shows that commuters from the Bay Area, Atlanta and Washington, DC, are delayed an average of 60 hours per year, while Los Angeles drivers are delayed an average of 72 hours. (Cindi Christie/STAFF)
Bay Area commuters waste more time and fuel in traffic than their fellow sufferers in every city in America save one: their freeway-enslaved counterparts in Los Angeles, according to a nationwide study released Tuesday.

Individual commuters average 60 hours of delay a year in the San Francisco-Oakland area, tied for second-worst with the Washington, D.C., and Atlanta metro areas. Angelenos clocked in with an untouchable 72 hours of delay per commuter. The area's top standing was painfully evident Tuesday morning, when a tractor-trailer collision shut down the San Mateo Bridge for more than five hours.

The watery geography may help explain its traffic standing, said Tim Lomax, a lead researcher on this year's Urban Mobility Report by the Texas Transportation Institute.

"I think that's really the issue that we've seen with the (Bay Area) numbers," Lomax said, an issue which is difficult to measure.

"When you have such a significant barrier to travel in the middle of a region and you change things," like shutting down a bridge, "it's not like you can take a street across a river or across the Bay."

Even so, "it surprises me to hear that we're the second worst," said Eric Powell, an insurance claims adjuster who sought relief from a backed-up Interstate 880 by driving on Hayward's city streets to get to an appointment in Union City.

"I know we're bad, but it seems like in the Bay Area there's always another way," Powell said, such as alternate streets or public transportation.

San Jose, which was counted separately, was in eighth place with 54 hours of annual delay per commuter.

In wasted fuel, the Bay Area stands alone as second worse, with each commuter consuming an average 47 gallons a year stuck in traffic — 10 less than those in Los Angeles.

While these results aren't news to area transportation officials, who are fond of reminding people of the Bay Area's No. 2 status and the need to combat congestion, the study by the Texas Transportation Institute also shows the area combating congestion as few other cities do.

Using ramp metering lights, video monitors and a rapid-reaction force to clear stalls and wrecks, the area is third best in the nation for cutting commuter delays by keeping highways running smoothly. Los Angeles and New York metro areas topped the list.

"If you didn't have the ramp metering and the service patrols, it would be 68 hours (of individual delay per year), compared to 60," said Tim Lomax, a lead researcher whose survey — the only one that examines congestion on a nationwide scale — is digested hungrily by traffic engineers each fall. "That's one thing Caltrans is known for — getting as much out of its system as they can."

Area commuters also derive the fourth-highest benefit from public transportation, shaving a total of 26 million hours of travel delays per year.

"This is telling us that a combination of improved public transit and small improvements that keep our highways flowing is going to be the biggest bang for the buck for Bay Area commuters," said Stuart Cohen, executive director of the Oakland-based Transportation and Land Use Coalition.

Currently Contra Costa and Alameda counties are collaborating with Caltrans on a project that uses those economical improvements to squeeze as much as possible out of the area's No. 1 traffic corridor.

Often described as built out to the neighborhood noise barriers, Interstate 80 is a prime candidate for new ways of fighting congestion.

"With right-of-way constraints and costs, we just can't keep adding freeway lanes and we need to look at other methods," said Susan Miller, director of projects for the Contra Costa County Transportation Authority.

On the other hand, voters have recently helped the Bay Area make some major improvements. Seven area counties have sales taxes dedicated to transportation improvements and California voters approved a

$20 billion transportation bond in November.

The Bay Area received over $1 billion for highway improvements, and that will help pay for extra carpool and regular lanes on State Highway 4 through Antioch, carpool lanes on the heavily congested I-580 corridor through the Livermore Valley and the capacity improvements on I-80. 

California generally captured the traffic congestion crown, being home to five cities among the nation's 13 most congested.

California does more — and works harder — than any other state when it comes to battling road delays. And that's important, because with the state's population expected to surge in the coming decades, those delays are only going to get worse.

"You would be facing some really bad congestion if not for that," Lomax said.

Gary Richards contributed to this story. Reach Erik Nelson at enelsonbayareanewsgroup.com or 510-208-6410.