Sometimes, we don’t need a study to point out the obvious. You know, like the fact that traffic throughout the area is increasingly turning from gridlock to grrrrrrridlock for frustrated motorists.
The number of vehicles crossing the Interstate 5 or Interstate 205 bridges reached record levels in July, with an average of 292,441 per day. Since 2009, traffic over each bridge has increased by more than 8 percent, and the I-5 crossing in particular has turned into snail-paced march.
This matches with data contained in a new report from the Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University. The annual scorecard of traffic throughout the country found that an improving economy and relatively low gas prices have Americans driving more than ever — and sitting in traffic more, as well. The average driver last year spent 42 hours sitting in congestion, with the bumper-to-bumper grind costing the economy a total of $160 billion in lost income and gas expenses. In Washington, D.C., the most congested region, drivers faced an average delay totaling 82 hours. Seattle drivers spent 63 hours in gridlock, the seventh-highest total, while Portland ranked 12th with a delay of 52 hours.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that the delays have been exacerbated in the Portland area in recent months. Part of that is due to the fact that container-shipping companies Hanjin and Hapag-Lloyd withdrew from the Port of Portland following a rash of union-led work slowdowns, and that has caused a sharp increase in heavy trucks hauling goods through the region toward ports in Tacoma and Seattle. As port representative Susie Lahsene told The Oregonian in June, “A good portion of (the trucks) are using the Interstate Bridge.”
But while such short-term influences can impact traffic flow, a long-term lack of attention has been the primary factor. As Tim Lomax, a co-author of the report, said: “Our growing traffic problem is too massive for any one entity to handle — state and local agencies can’t do it alone.” And as the Associated Press reported: “Congress has kept federal transportation programs teetering on the edge of insolvency for nearly eight years because lawmakers have been unwilling to raise the federal gas tax and haven’t found a politically palatable alternative to pay for needed improvements.” The federal gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon has remained unchanged since 1993 as the nation has largely ignored infrastructure improvements.
The Washington Legislature this year approved a gas-tax increase of 11.9 cents per gallon to be phased in over two years, raising $16 billion to pay for transportation projects throughout the state. Precious little of that revenue, however, is earmarked for Clark County; precious little relief is on the way for local motorists. As population continues to grow and as the economy — we hope — continues to improve, congestion will worsen.
With that in mind, several steps are in order but the first is that lawmakers on both sides of the Columbia River must revisit the idea of a replacement Interstate 5 Bridge. Oregon lawmakers should recognize that including light-rail access into Clark County — at this time — is a deal-breaker; Washington leaders should recognize that some tolls — a reasonable user fee — will be required. Demagoguery on both sides has proven ineffective to this point.
Traffic throughout the Vancouver area has grown noticeably more congested. And that fact is too costly to ignore any longer.