Monday, September 20, 2021
Sept. 20, 2021

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In Our View: Congested roads signal return to normalcy

The Columbian

As the economy reopens and social outings resume, we are reminded of a pre-pandemic scourge in our lives: Traffic congestion. Increased activity has brought back clogged roads and frustration for drivers.

This probably sounds like a segue into a commentary on the Interstate 5 Bridge and the need for progress on a replacement. Instead, it is a recognition that traffic solutions are required throughout the region – and an admonition that caution is necessary as more and more drivers return to the roads.

An article this week by Columbian reporter Anthony Macuk detailed plans for easing congestion along state Highway 14 between Interstate 205 and Southeast 164th Avenue. The Washington State Department of Transportation is expected to add a third primary travel lane in each direction along state Highway 14, with construction on the $25.4 million project scheduled to begin early next year.

“When we did initial modeling, you can count on this corridor being congested every single day,” said Michael Southwick of WSDOT. That is an understatement for those familiar with the interchange between I-205 and Highway 14, and it is particularly true for westbound traffic trying to merge with southbound I-205 in the mornings.

Notably, officials plan to add a peak-use lane that will be open for several hours a day but will serve as a shoulder at other times. Electronic signs will tell drivers whether the lane is open to traffic. “Peak-use shoulder is new for folks down here,” said one project manager. “It’s used up in Seattle and done very well.”

Most important will be improvements to the circular ramp leading from westbound Highway 14 to southbound I-205. As The Columbian reported: “Much of the existing congestion leading up to the I-205 interchange stems from drivers jockeying for position and shifting lanes at the last minute.”

That is the result of an outdated design for a bridge that carried fewer than 50,000 vehicles a day when it opened in the mid-1980s. The bridge carried about 166,000 vehicles a day prior to COVID-19.

Those numbers illuminate the traffic issues that permeate the region. Planners are increasingly tasked with squeezing more and more vehicles into limited space that was designed for far less traffic. According to INRIX, a Kirkland-based company that analyzes traffic throughout the world, Portland has the eighth-worst congestion of any U.S. city – and that congestion extends to this side of the Columbia River.

Adding more lanes is the only way to build our way out of the problem, but that also becomes a self-defeating solution. With limited space for new construction, capacity is finite. And with increased emphasis on reducing carbon emissions, maximizing that capacity is not always the wisest approach; mass transit and effective urban planning are essential to building cities that can thrive and accommodate growing populations in the future.

In the meantime, the return of almost-normal levels of traffic brings to mind an interesting result of the coronavirus pandemic. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, U.S. traffic deaths increased 7 percent last year despite stay-at-home orders that sharply reduced the number of miles driven.

Statistics are not yet available for Washington, but nationally the number of fatalities was the highest since 2007. Officials largely attribute that to driver carelessness.

As the pandemic subsides, many facets of society are returning to what we recall as normal. For better and for worse, that includes congestion along our roads and highways.