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Thursday, September 28, 2023
Sept. 28, 2023

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Summit sounds alarm on I-5 Bridge, traffic congestion

Portland’s ranking in U.S., world catches audience by surprise

By , Columbian staff writer

PORTLAND — More frequent crashes, more people waiting in longer and longer traffic jams and lost business productivity are just some of the many troubles associated with traveling the Interstate 5 Bridge today, and it won’t get any better unless a new crossing is built.

That was the message at the Business Leaders Regional Transportation Summit, a symposium primarily focused on the transportation hindrances associated with the antiquated bridge, and getting across the message to political leaders that change is possible.

“We want to shrink the size of the river and erase the state line,” Ron Arp, president of Identity Clark County, said before the beginning of the event, arguing that there was a clear business and government case to be made about why the bridge should be replaced. What that replacement would look like, however, was not the subject of the meeting.

“This is about identifying a problem and heading toward a solution,” Arp said.

Roughly 175 people attended the event, which was hosted by the Portland-based Columbia Corridor Association, Vancouver’s Identity Clark County and the Southwest Washington Freight and Commerce Task Force — an organization consisting of Clark County’s three public ports.

Portland’s congestion now is the 12th-worst of any U.S. city and ranks 40th-worst among the world’s cities, Angela Salerno of INRIX, a big data firm focused on transportation issues within cities, told an audibly surprised audience.

Her presentation included data that the firm has gathered to show the northbound I-5 corridor leading up to just south of Vancouver as a consistent traffic hot spot.

“Looking at the data … it’s rising a little bit more than you think it would even in comparison with a normal population increase,” she said. “Typically, there has to be some sort of intervention at some point to make sure it doesn’t rise to a level that makes the city inaccessible.”

During a question-and-answer segment, she said Seattle has improved congestion on certain roadways by implementing tolling regimens on them.

Dale Robins of the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council said the region has enjoyed employment and population growth but struggles with congestion problems.

“When I came to the region about 30 years ago, we thought 120,000 is the maximum capacity you’re going to get across the bridge. We’re now approaching 140,000 vehicles a day,” Robins said.

Those vehicles, during the peak morning period, move a little more than 9 mph in the 3.6-mile stretch of road between Main Street in Vancouver and Jantzen Beach.

Building a third bridge wouldn’t be a solution for three-quarters of those drivers, because their trips start and end in the area surrounding and influenced by I-5, Robins said.

“Those trips have to be in this corridor,” he said. “They’re not going to divert to a new corridor if a new corridor was built — they need to be there.”

About a third of Clark County commuters travel across the Columbia River on I-5 or I-205. By 2040, that percentage is expected to drop to about a quarter, but the actual number of people crossing will rise, he said.

I-5 corridor investment

Over the last 25 years, RTC has invested about $250 million in infrastructure investments in the Clark County I-5 corridor. That work has vastly improved mobility around and north out of the county, but crossing the bridge remains problematic.

Sorin Garber, a Portland-based transportation planning consultant, said a lot of the data he explored reflected many of Washington’s issues in Oregon. That state, too, has made many investments in its roadway infrastructure for vehicles and bicyclists around Clackamas, Washington and Multnomah counties in about the last decade. In the same period, TriMet also has added 10 percent more service hours, not including this year’s additions.

But more than 250,000 new people have moved to those three counties. Most of them brought cars, and with that comes traffic congestion, he said.

The morning southbound traffic queue is about 3 miles long between Lombard Street in Portland and the Interstate 5 Bridge. During the evening northbound commute, the queue stretches to about 11.5 miles long.

“That translates into a six-hour time you’re in congestion,” he said. Garber likened growing traffic on the Interstate 5 Bridge to an over-filled bathtub — eventually the tub spills over and into the surrounding areas.

From 2005 to 2017, that Lombard-to-Interstate 5 Bridge stretch saw a 15 percent rise in collisions, he said — the majority of which are rear-end and sideswipe crashes around interchanges, he said.

Maintenance on I-205’s Glenn L. Jackson Bridge and the I-5 Bridge will be close to $300 million by 2040 — including the trunnion replacement project planned on the I-5 Bridge in a couple of years.

“But it does not include seismic upgrades to the I-5 Bridge,” he said.

The approximately 175 attendees at the symposium and anyone else who cared to were urged to sign a letter to Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, and House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, to restart conversations with Washington leaders about replacing the I-5 Bridge.

“Traffic congestion from the outdated I-5 Bridge comes at a steep economic, environmental and social price to our region,” the letter reads.

“The I-5 Bridge is both our primary funnel and our No. 1 chokepoint in the region and will significantly worsen as we welcome around 50,000 new residents to our metropolitan area each year for decades to come.”

Columbian staff writer