Cars rule the Clark County commute

Big-dollar projects are under way to smooth the road

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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It’s no secret that many Clark County residents don’t work in their hometowns — 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 to alleviate a strained system. The $133 million Salmon Creek Interchange Project, to remake the busy northern convergence of Interstate 5 and Interstate 205, kicked off its final phase last year. Crews are also putting the finishing touches on a widened state Highway 14 in Camas and Washougal, and recently opened a new interchange at the junction of state Highway 500 and St. Johns Boulevard in Vancouver.

Farther north, an $88 million job on state Highway 502 will also widen the thoroughfare between I-5 and Battle Ground.

All of that and more adds up to one of the busier construction periods in recent memory, according to regional WSDOT leaders.

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 — except 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 route, its busiest, tallied a total ridership of close to 2 million in 2012. (At its west end, that route crosses the I-5 Bridge for a couple of stops in Portland.) The Mill Plain route also recorded well over 1 million passenger trips for the year.

Though Vancouver has historically used a bus-only public transportation system, leaders have recently pursued new high-capacity transit options for the city. Voters delivered a setback to those plans last November. The rejection of a sales tax measure denied key funding to bus rapid transit, an enhanced bus system planned for Vancouver’s Fourth Plain corridor, and light rail planned as part of the Columbia River Crossing.

CRC plans call for building a light rail line on the new I-5 Bridge, passing through downtown Vancouver on its way to Clark College. The system would connect to the MAX trains that TriMet now operates in the Portland area.

Light rail remains a lightning rod of controversy in Clark County. Opponents have vowed to keep fighting it. Supporters still say, “build that bridge” with it. Politicians are staking positions on both sides. And the brewing fight could go a long way in determining the CRC’s fate in 2013.