How ship traffic affects I-5

By Courtney Sherwood, Columbian freelance writer

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Commuters to Portland know a thing or two about traffic jams. But folks who regularly cross the Interstate 5 Bridge into the big city may have noticed some particularly nasty snarls over the past month or so.

Accidents, road work, weather and the time the sun rises and sets all affect the load on our roads. But I can’t help but wonder if something else may have worsened the commute.

Since early December, the Columbia and Snake rivers have been closed to barges upstream of The Dalles Dam. Until the rivers reopen in late March, all Idaho, Eastern Oregon and Eastern Washington products that would normally ship downriver on a barge will have to get here by truck and train instead.

The U.S. Coast Guard estimates that Northwest highways will carry an extra 125 trucks per week during the closure.

Ken Casavant, director of the Freight Policy Transportation Institute at Washington State University, agreed that it’s possible that the extra trucks could be making traffic worse.

Casavant’s ongoing study of the river closure, and its affect on freight shipping, has already measured an uptick in truck container movements on Northwest highways, though his data is not complete.

“Every truck that is added to the highway is the equivalent of four to five cars,” he said.

So an extra 125 trucks on Northwest highways every week is equivalent to as many as 625 extra automobiles.

Not all of those extra vehicles are interrupting Clark County residents’ I-5 commutes, but many of them are. Ports in Kalama, Vancouver and Portland are the top export points for the grains that farmers are shipping West.

My traffic theory may be completely off kilter. Casavant said it would be hard to prove.

But if I’m right, then we should all celebrate the bad traffic. Why?

• This won’t last much longer. The rivers will open up again by late March, and then all those trucks will be off the road.

• It’s better than the alternative. Without the current 14-week shut down, we’d be at the mercy of aging infrastructure. If we waited for the gates that control shipping on the upper Columbia and Snake rivers to break before fixing them, we’d face a full year shutdown, instead of just 14 weeks.

• More trucks on the road translate to more truck drivers with jobs. Clark County employment data for December isn’t out yet, but it should be interesting to watch for an uptick in the transportation sector.

Of course, about 100 employees of Vancouver-based Tidewater Barge have been temporarily laid off until the rivers reopen, so we may not actually gain employment during this shutdown. But those workers had more than a year to prepare for their temporary layoffs, and Tidewater has helped them plan ahead and build a savings cushion until they’re hired back.

As I’ve written in this column in the past, you should take anyone who makes broad claims based on incomplete information with a grain of salt. Maybe I’ll be proven wrong. But for the sake of our commuting friends, I hope we all see the traffic get a little less snarled by the end of March.

Courtney Sherwood is The Columbian’s business and features editor. Reach her at 360-735-4561 or courtney.sherwood@columbian.com.