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Originally published Wednesday, April 24, 2013 at 6:19 AM

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Report: Traffic delays in Seattle slowed in 2012

Although traffic in the U.S. grew more congested last year, drivers on Seattle streets and highways faced less delay, the Inrix data firm says.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

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Although traffic in the U.S. became more congested during 2012, drivers on Seattle-area streets and highways are facing less delay, the Inrix data firm says.

Seattle bucked the trends in the sixth annual Traffic Scorecard, released Wednesday, which says economic recovery and job growth made roads more crowded elsewhere.

The metro area, defined as Snohomish, King and Pierce counties, ranked No. 8 in delays, compared with No. 7 a year earlier.

The average Seattle-area driver wasted 35 hours in traffic delays in 2012, compared with going the speed limit. That compared with 39 hours in 2011

Only Seattle and Washington, D.C., hit by federal spending interruptions, were less congested in the first quarter of 2013 than a year earlier. Nationally, delay increased 4 percent.

Seattle’s wired, nimble population makes it “an outlier,” said Jim Bak, spokesman for Kirkland-based Inrix.

“We have a pretty progressive culture here, when it comes to traffic and how people get around,” he said. “Public transit, telecommuting. People are likely to use a smartphone app to check the WashDOT website,” referring to the state Department of Transportation.

Economics don’t explain the improvement, as local unemployment at 5.5 percent is better than most places.

Bak mentions his commute, North Seattle to Kirkland. “I used to drive five days a week, but now I take the bus three days a week, because I don’t want to pay a toll on the 520 bridge,” he said.

Ridership on King County Metro Transit buses from White Center and West Seattle grew by one-fourth since early 2011, as did bus use on the Highway 520 toll bridge.

As of late 2012, Metro handled 398,000 daily riders, Sound Transit 95,000, Community Transit 34,000, Pierce Transit 38,000 and Everett Transit 7,000, for a total 572,000, says the National Transit Database.

Only 34 percent of employees in downtown Seattle drive solo, says a Commute Seattle survey.

King County Executive Dow Constantine spent Tuesday at the Legislature, for the second time this year, to ask for authority to raise car-tab taxes, by a County Council vote or a citizen ballot. The rate could be up to $150 a year per $10,000 of vehicle value, with 60 percent to fund bus hours and 40 percent for roads, in King County only.

“There is clearly a drastic shift to transit happening,” he said after a hearing. A transit cut would put more vehicles on the road and delay everybody, he said.

Los Angeles passed Honolulu to regain the congestion crown, at an average 59 hours delay, followed by San Francisco; Austin, Texas; New York; Bridgeport, Conn.; San Jose, Calif.; Seattle; Washington, D.C., and Boston.

The Seattle area’s busiest corridor — I-5 from the north city limit to downtown in the afternoon — is slowing, and moved from the 63rd worst to now the 11th worst stretch in the land, in a class with L.A. and New York.

Inrix’s Bak attributes I-5 slowdowns to drivers heading toward I-90 to avoid Highway 520 tolls, which began Dec. 29, 2011; spillover from construction on Mercer Street; and a post-recession reshuffling of jobs and driving patterns.

I-405 is slower in downtown Bellevue from toll diversion, while data from Inrix and the state show continued slowness in the three-lane corridor from Lynnwood to Bothell.

But other spots, including I-405 in Renton, have improved after new lanes were built recently, and because people gave up their lengthy drives, Bak said.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @mikelindblom

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