In Our View: Fewer Delays on Local Roads

Traffic congestion has decreased; no one has the complete explanation

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What could possibly explain the reduction in local traffic congestion over the past few years? Not even the transportation experts can fully explain.But here's our take. You know that irascible, combative couple that miraculously managed to reached their golden wedding anniversary? Well, let's not go and ruin things by asking how. Let's just celebrate. Same thing with the reduction in local traffic congestion. Don't sweat the details. Besides, it probably won't last, once (if) the economic recovery kicks in.

As Eric Florip reported in Thursday's Columbian, drivers in the Vancouver area saw the number of traffic delay hours drop by more than half in 2011, compared with 2009. That's according to a recent report from the Washington State Department of Transportation. Adding to the local intrigue is the fact that "statewide" traffic congestion increased by about 16 percent in that same period. (We put statewide in quotes because about 99 percent of traffic delay hours studied by WSDOT occur in the Puget Sound region. The rest occur in Vancouver, Spokane and Tri-Cities.)

As we noted, the most informed analysts are reluctant to say why congestion has decreased in our community, but all agree that a wide array of variables are contributing. Of course, we're no experts, but since traffic congestion is a popular debate topic around these parts, here are a few factors we suspect could be at play:

The effect of the economic slump cannot be overlooked. Fewer people have been driving to work. Fewer businesses have been putting their delivery trucks on the roads. The WSDOT report notes: "When compared to 2010, annual vehicle miles traveled saw a slight decrease in 2011 on all roads (by 0.4 percent) and on state highways (by 1 percent)." It's likely that decrease was greater around Vancouver, where unemployment rates have been among the state's highest.

As Florip reported, the infamous Delta Park bottleneck was opened in 2010. A small stretch of Interstate 5 just south of the bridge was expanded from two lanes to three.

In the fall of 2009, WSDOT completed a project at Interstate 205 and Mill Plain Boulevard, directly connecting the freeway to Northeast 112th Avenue. This allows about 2,000 vehicles daily to avoid the intersection of Mill Plain and Chkalov, possibly the busiest intersection in the community. That project likely affected traffic congestion rates for 2010-2011.

Gas prices. As they go up, discretionary driving goes down.

Telecommuting. Maybe more people are working from home.

But those are just a few reasons. Many more are out there. You've probably got your own. Feel free to add them, either in online comments beneath this editorial or in letters to the editor. Because we're not experts, we'll probably agree with you.

What happens with local traffic congestion in the future is anybody's guess. Probably, more cars will be driven more miles, but we also know that numerous improvement projects are under way. Most significantly, these include the new overpass at state Highway 500 and St. Johns Road, improvements on state Highway 14 in Camas and Washougal, and the massive project adding a 139th Street interchange at the freeway in Salmon Creek.

Long term, the WSDOT report offers this note that should encourage residents of our community: "… major projects, including the Alaskan Way Viaduct, state Road 520 Floating Bridge, Columbia River Crossing and projects in the I-5 and I-405 corridors are in the works."