Traffic woes continue, documented

New research shows that Fairfield's commuters hit some of the worst congestion along the Fairfield County highways.

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 (ConnDOT) 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.

The average speed on the southbound lanes of I-95 and the Merritt during the morning rush is only 35 mph and 34 mph, respectively, according to the report. 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 devices 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 daily.

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

The data shows people leaving Fairfield have it amongst the worst.

Drivers leaving Fairfield encounter the heaviest traffic 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, all which also average 15 miles per hour.

On the Merritt Parkway, 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 ConnDOT projects that are aimed to alleviate traffic congestion.

SWRPA is a governmental agency that serves eight municipalities in Fairfield County, but not Fairfield. Traffic passing through the town was still taken into effect in the study. Of those eight, Wilton, Weston and New Canaan are the only towns that don't have both I-95 and the Merritt Parkway, although the parkway lies on the southern border of these towns.

For ConnDOT, 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. Now the ConnDOT is taking whatever approaches it can to limit congestion despite the difficulty of the task that it entails since the area has already been extensively developed.

"I-95 is difficult," said Kevin Nursick, spokesperson for ConnDOT. "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 the use of eminent domain is "tricky."

Although the ConnDOT is a state organization, 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, and 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 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. 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 ConnDOT 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 is about 60-70 percent completed and adds 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 that doesn't solve the core problem of there being simply too many cars. ConnDOT has been aiming to wean drivers off the roads and into the trains. Rising gas prices have also helped.

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," said Jonas, who said people 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. She couldn't always take the train, either.

"It was terrible," she said. There was not actually a good commuting option. "That commute could have been 20 minutes to an hour. The unpredictability was stressful."

Now, she's back to 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.