In Our View: Slow Traffic Slows C-Tran

Agency’s decision to alter express routes illustrates Oregon’s need to tackle issue

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A decision by C-Tran officials to alter some bus routes beginning in September illuminates issues surrounding transportation throughout the metro area. Most notably, it reinforces the need for Oregon officials to deal with Portland’s pokey traffic.

C-Tran’s changes largely will focus upon alterations to its express service, which takes commuters from Clark County into Portland during the morning rush hour and returns them home in the evening. Last year, those routes saw nearly 800,000 boardings. As spokeswoman Christine Selk explained to The Columbian: “The goal with this round of service changes is really to improve the commuting experience for our express riders, in a nutshell. Unfortunately, our printed schedules have not kept pace with traffic that continues to worsen into the downtown area.”

In other words, congestion is keeping C-Tran from making its appointed rounds. Bus service is only as effective as it is reliable, and traffic along the Interstate 5 corridor has become noticeably worse in recent years. A recent study by the Oregon Department of Transportation found that congestion on I-5 southbound toward the center of Portland typically is backed up from 7:45 to 9:45 a.m., and again from 11 a.m. to 6:15 p.m., meaning that what used to be “rush hour” is now “inch along slowly hours.” The prime daily drive time for the corridor has expanded by two hours since 2013.

For Clark County motorists, that impacts their daily lives while leaving solutions out of their hands. Although much attention — understandably — is placed upon the I-5 Bridge, changes also are necessary through the chokepoint that is Portland’s Rose Quarter corridor. Any solution to the bridge bottleneck will result in a hurry-up-and-wait scenario unless the Rose Quarter area is addressed.

Oregon officials are developing plans to widen that corridor, but those plans are facing opposition from some activists. Meanwhile, the state is pursuing efforts to institute tolls along Interstate 5 and Interstate 205 beginning at the state line — tolls that would inequitably target Washington residents. While those residents would benefit from an I-5 widening, they would not benefit from other projects the tolls would compel them to fund. As Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, wrote in a letter opposing the plan: “Oregon has no right to make Southwest Washington an unwilling piggy bank for Oregon’s infrastructure projects.”

Leaders from the Southwest Washington legislative delegation all the way to the governor’s office should quickly join Herrera Beutler in opposing Oregon’s misguided plan. While they are at it, they should seize the opportunity to rekindle discussions about the Interstate 5 Bridge and finally carve out some solutions for a problem that hampers the economy and the quality of life for local residents.

Meanwhile, C-Tran’s changes to routes and schedules point out the benefits of bus service. Unlike fixed-route transit, buses offer flexibility. If a particular route is underused, service can be trimmed or eliminated. If a particular area is underserved, routes can be altered to provide service to customers who desire it. If traffic makes it impossible for buses to meet their schedule, the schedule can be changed. As Selk said about the planned changes, “It’s to improve reliability and efficiency as a whole.”

In terms of scheduling and service to consumers, the planned C-Tran alterations represent small changes. But they touch upon some of the larger transportation issues that hamper the metro area.