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Local companies met with ODOT and Metro to share concerns about how people and goods travel through the Westside

COURTESY MAP: OREGON DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION - A map shows the focus of a study to determine transportation issues along Highway 26 from North Hillsboro to western Multnomah County.Traffic congestion and inadequate transit routes were the key concerns of business leaders across Washington County during an online call Wednesday morning, Nov. 16, with county businesspeople and chamber of commerce leaders.

The Oregon Department of Transportation is researching the current problems that employers and employees face across a large portion of Washington County, especially along Highway 26, when it comes to traveling by car, transit, bike and foot.

Nearly 30 people, many transportation representatives with ODOT and Metro, exchanged views on future transportation improvements.

Transit officials sought to understand what the problems, both big and small, employers are facing now, so the issues can be fixed as future transportation projects are identified.

The Westside study comes as Washington County faces enormous growth, leading to more cars on the road and more congestion on major thoroughfares, paired with fewer people using public transit while getting back to the office as they emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic.

'Last mile' transit challenges

Past studies have found that more frequent transit and better transit-station access will be required to meet rising needs from population and employment growth across Washington County.

Even now, community organizations and business representatives say getting from home to work solely via transit is a challenge that many can't overcome. Instead, they get in their cars.

Jeff Pazdalski, executive director of the Westside Transportation Alliance, said one of the biggest complaints about transportation he hears is that the "last mile" between a transit hub and an employee's place of work is what prohibits some people from using public transportation.

"First- and last-mile connection is huge. There are a lot of our members that in theory their employees could ride the MAX, but don't have any way to get that last little connection" to their home or office, Pazdalski said.

He continued that there are large areas across Washington County that aren't well served by the existing transit options or walking and biking routes, so instead people opt to get behind the wheel.

"We hear that 'gosh, I live a couple miles away, and I'd love to ride (a bike) to work, but I don't feel like I have a safe route to get there.' Sometimes those options that are viewed as safe don't really exist."

Annie Herbert of Kaiser Permanente said that not only is the "last mile" influencing employees and their routes to work, but also those traveling to appointments. Delays on long commutes can wind up costing large companies like Kaiser Permanente time and money.

"One of the implications in health care is all of us in health care driving to affordability. When you have members and staff who are late … that creates delays that can increase cost."

Sharing the roads

Highway 26 is a major freight corridor. One study found that Highway 26, also called Sunset Highway, has a higher volume of trucks traveling daily than any other non-interstate highways.

Business representatives at the meeting said there was a lack of choices in routes, meaning to get from one end of the county to the other, freighters and commuters basically must take Sunset Highway or busy Cornelius Pass Road.

"I think there was some high-level themes about our system out on the Westside having a lack of redundancy — that it's a problem for moving freight and freight needs to move, even if it's moving slowly at times," summarized Tim Collins of Metro.

While Highway 26 is busy with freight trucks, it's not overrun. Freight trucks make up 5.3% of the vehicles on Highway 26 in any given day, according to the presentation given Tuesday, meaning most of the congestion is coming from commuter vehicles.

Alicia Bermes, president and chief executive officer of the Beaverton Area Chamber of Commerce, said most of the complaints she hears about traveling are based around Highway 217 at the Highway 26 interchange near West Slope and Cedar Hills.

Other businesses, like property managers and American Medical Response ambulance services, say time and money is wasted when their staff get stuck in congestion multiple times a day.

"Emergency vehicles, obviously if they have the lights and sirens, are about to get through more quickly than normal in congested times, but with the higher number of vehicles on the road (AMR) has observed that it definitely takes more time to do that," said Nadine Appenbrick of Parametrix planning consultants, which is working on the study with ODOT and Metro. "For non-emergency vehicles, they're stuck in the same traffic all of us are."

Riding into the future

Molly Cooney-Mesker said Metro's current regional transportation planning is focused on projects that will increase capacity on already busy roads. Smaller solutions like "last mile" transit updates are further off, though not unacknowledged.

"We've heard that loud and clear, very consistently," she said. "It's on Metro's radar in a major way."

While transit serves to reduce the number of cars on the road in the Westside, a few more options won't solve the already burgeoning congestion, Pazdalski said.

"If you're on a bus, you're still sitting in traffic," he said.

He proposed that ODOT consider ways to give priority to buses, like dedicated bus lanes on major routes in the Highway 26 corridor.

Carpooling was also considered, but more challenges have arisen with companies increasingly relying on hybrid and alternative work schedules, meaning there are fewer employees at an office space at any one time.

With continued business input, ODOT will craft recommendations for future projects to address the needs of travelers. A draft plan for ODOT's Westside multimodal improvements likely won't be in place until the end of 2023.


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