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Reverse-commute patterns contribute to congestion that's as bad here as it is in Chicago or Washington, D.C.



REVIEW FILE PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Recent studies confirm that Portland-area traffic is bad and getting worse, with most trips taking 26 percent longer than they would in free-flowing conditions.Portland is tied with Chicago and Washington, D.C., for the eighth-most-congested metropolitan region in the country, according to a new study by Tom Tom, a navigation system manufacturer that also analyzes traffic conditions.

The TomTom Traffic Index found that all three cities had an overall congestion level of 26 percent in 2015, meaning travel on both highways and non-highways anytime of the day takes 26 percent longer than it would in free-flowing conditions.

Nick Cohn, Tom Tom’s senior traffic expert, says he was surprised Portland rated so high, considering the city’s reputation for light rail, bicycling and other modes of alternative transportation. But after analyzing traffic patterns in the metropolitan area, Cohn says much of the congestion is caused by people commuting to employers outside Portland, like the high-tech companies in western Washington County.

“MAX is set up to serve Portland, not the employment centers in the surrounding communities that are also too far away to bike to,” Cohn says.

According to Cohn, so-called reverse commute patterns are difficult for governments to change because they are caused by people making personal choices about where they want to live and work. For example, Intel employees may prefer to live in the Pearl District in Northwest Portland, despite the daily commute.

Cohn’s comments are consistent with a survey released in March that ranked seven Portland highway corridors among the most congested in the country. The INRIX traffic study identified two of them as connecting Portland and Washington County: U.S. 26 from Camelot Court to Canyon Road, and OR 217 from the 72nd Avenue exit to Hall Boulevard.

But the INRIX survey identified congested corridors in the rest of the metropolitan area, too. The remaining five: I-5 from the Highway 43/Macadam Avenue exit to the North Tomahawk Island Drive exit; I-84 from OR-99E/Pacific Highway/Grand Avenue to I-205; I-205 from Washington Street/Stark Street to the US-30 Columbia Boulevard exit; and I-5 from Hanes Street to Elingson Road.

“Urbanization continues to drive increased congestion in many major cities worldwide,” the study says. “Strong economies, population growth, higher employment rates and declining gas prices have resulted in more drivers on the road — and more time wasted in traffic.”

Reducing congestion is not going to be easy, however. For example, construction-related options between Portland and Hillsboro are already limited. There is not enough connected underdeveloped land for a new road; only a few stretches of US-26 and OR-217 remain to be widened, and the corridor is already served by a light rail line.

A multi-year study called the “Washington County Transportation Futures Study” is exploring other solutions, including options for congested roadways in other parts of the county. A recent online public survey found the most support for reducing motor vehicle trips by encouraging such options as walking, biking and improved transit service.

Construction-related options in Portland are also challenging. There is not enough available land for major new roads or even widening many of the existing ones. Some significant road projects in the planning stages focus on rebuilding existing bottlenecks. Perhaps the most ambitious is intended to untangle poorly designed I-5 and I-84 interchanges in the Rose Quarter area. The cost to do that is estimated at more than $120 million, however, and the financing has not yet been secured.

Despite the challenges, reducing congestion is essential for the state and regional economy. A 2014 report released by the Value of Jobs Coalition concluded that increasing congestion could cost the Oregon economy almost $1 billion annually by 2040, with most of the increasing expenses occurring in the Portland area.

According to the study, titled “Economic Impact of Congestion,” 5 percent of all travel time in the Portland area took place in congested conditions in 2010. That is expected to triple to 15 percent of all trips by 2040.

Put another way, by 2040, the average household will experience 69 hours of congestion annually — or nearly two work weeks spent in congested conditions — if only the currently planned transportation improvements are made. Additional future investments would reduce that amount to 37 hours per household.

Contact Jim Redden at 503-546-5131 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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