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Has widening roads helped Valley travel times?

It feels like a least one Valley freeway is under construction all the time, but is it helping our commute?

PHOENIX — Driving on Loop 101 at 5 p.m. or on the I-10 at the same hour can be the not-so-pretty sight of Valley traffic

"It's busy; it always takes a long time," driver Mallory Moore said. 

It's that rush hour in the morning and evening that drivers on the road feel the pressure, some describing their commutes as "hectic" and "irritating." Still, others see perspective in Valley traffic. 

"I think we have it pretty good here compared to other places I've lived," Rick Erekson said. 

"Compared to other big cities, I think it's reasonable," Mike Russo said. 

While it may be "reasonable," would widening the road help? 

"I think so, maybe even adding two HOV lanes or just another additional lane, I think it would ease the congestion on the freeways," Ivan Itrralde said.

"It's kind of like loosening your belt on your jeans; maybe better to lose weight instead," Russo said. 

John Caskey, a professor of economics at Swarthmore College, said adding lanes on freeways brings up the idea of induced demand. It basically says if you widen the freeway, more people will drive it. 

"Everyone knew that highway was congested before, so there were people who avoided it by traveling at different hours of the day," Caskey said. "Once you widen it, they'll now, for a temporary amount of time, say, 'Oh, it's less congested,'" Caskey said. 

That traffic doesn't have to be just time-based, Caskey said. But could be coming from surface streets or people more willing to take longer trips knowing traffic isn't as bad. 

"That does not say that widening the highway is always a dumb thing to do because while it doesn't relieve the congestion, a wider highway does accommodate more cars," Caskey said. 

Steven Polzin, a research professor with ASU, said population growth is also a factor in widened roads becoming more congested again. 

"Yes, new capacity enables people to travel more, and that's a reality. However, in most cases, the new demand that's going to use roadways isn't, you know, each individual that used to be there traveling a little bit further. It's all of the new folks and all of the new activity that's taking place that's traveling," Polzin said. 

Arizona and Maricopa County have grown significantly over the past two decades, with construction booming for new lanes and new highways to accommodate new homes. 

"If you live in metropolitan areas anywhere in the United States, there's going to be traffic," Wang Zhang, Transportation Data Program Manager for the Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG), said. 

U.S. Census Bureau data shows the average Maricopa County commuter's travel time has gone up from 2010 to 2019. 

"Our average travel time for that workforce only increased by two minutes," Zhang said. 

Zhang said this 2.1-minute increase, or the no change in the data in the most recent surveys done by MAG, is thanks to construction with money from Proposition 400. 

"Either we're adding new freeways or we're doing a widening for existing freeway systems as they all will contribute in terms of reducing the travel time for our commuters," Zhang said. 

Zhang points to examples like adding a lane on Loop 101 between Baseline Road and the 202 San Tan or the 202 South Mountain that helps cars and trucks bypass downtown Phoenix. 

Adding, too, the Valley is back to pre-pandemic traffic levels. 

"People's driving behavior has changed. There's more capacity on the road. There are more cars on the road, more population moved to our region in last three, four years," Zhang said. 

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But building completely out of congestion isn't really an option either. 

"There is going to be traffic, or it is going to be congestion. But we're trying to do our best to help reduce or maintain the congestion to the possible degree," Zhang said. 

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