In Clark County, cars rule

New commuting choices could be on the horizon

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

Published:

 

It’s no secret that many Clark County residents don’t work in their hometown — some 60,000 cross the Interstate 5 and 205 bridges each day to reach their jobs in Oregon.

Even with a shifting transportation landscape that could bring high-capacity transit options to Clark County, the choice for most residents today remains clear: The car is king.

About 78 percent of Clark County commuters drive to work alone in a car, truck or van, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey — a study that forms a three-year average based on data from 2008 to 2010. The same survey found that an additional 10.5 percent carpooled to work. The rest — another 10.5 percent — mostly took public transportation, walked, or worked from home.

The average commute time for Clark County workers? A shade under 25 minutes, according to the survey.

With tens of thousands of cars on Southwest Washington roads and highways daily, the state Department of Transportation is tackling several large projects that aim to alleviate a strained system. The $133 million Salmon Creek Interchange Project will remake the busy northern convergence of Interstate 5 and Interstate 205. An $88 million job on state Highway 502 will widen the thoroughfare between I-5 and Battle Ground. And last year, construction picked up on a $48 million project that will rebuild the intersection of state Highway 500 and St. Johns Boulevard in Vancouver.

All of that and more adds up to one of the busier construction periods in recent memory, WSDOT regional administrator Don Wagner told the Washington State Transportation Commission in November.

Then there’s the biggest of big-ticket items — the more than $3 billion Columbia River Crossing, which would replace the I-5 Bridge, rebuild the freeway on both sides of the river and extend light rail into downtown Vancouver.

For those who opt for public transportation, C-Tran operates bus routes that reach all of Clark County’s incorporated cities — excluding Woodland — and the town of Yacolt. Several express routes also travel between Vancouver and Portland each weekday. Paratransit C-Van service picks up disabled and elderly riders by request.

C-Tran’s busiest lines run mostly within Vancouver. The agency’s Fourth Plain and Mill Plain bus routes both tallied total ridership of more than 1 million in 2011.

Though Vancouver has historically used a bus-only public transportation system, recent planning efforts may bring new high-capacity transit options to the city. In 2011, C-Tran kicked off a planning effort to explore the possibility of a bus rapid transit system on Vancouver’s Fourth Plain Boulevard and Fort Vancouver Way corridors. The system — used now in Everett and Eugene, Ore., among other cities — could mean larger buses and reconfigured streets if installed.

Columbia River Crossing plans also call for building a light rail line across the new I-5 bridge, through downtown Vancouver and to Clark College. The system would connect to the MAX trains that TriMet now operates in the Portland area.

Both of those efforts are controversial, however, and voters will have a say in paying for them this year. A planned sales tax increase likely to land on the November ballot would cover the operation costs of future high-capacity transit systems. The vote comes on the heels of another sales tax hike — passed convincingly in 2011 — to maintain C-Tran’s basic bus service.