Study: Without more funding, congestion will hurt economy

Photo Credit: PORTLAND TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - A new study says congestion will be three times worse by 2040 unless more money is spent on transportation projects than currently planned.Traffic congestion will threaten the state economy unless more money is spent on transportation projects in the Portland region than currently planned, according to a new congestion study to be released at the 2015 Oregon Business Summit.

If transportation spending is not increased, the average metropolitan area household will be stuck in congestion for 69 hours a year by 2040 — triple the time in 2010, the Economic Impacts of Congestion study says. The impact on freight-dependent businesses will be even greater because such congestion can cause them to miss critical shipments, reducing the state’s economic competitiveness because so many goods travel through the Portland region.

“The study shows just how transportation dependent the state and region are. Because of that, congestion has the potential to affect the economy to a great degree,” says Marion Haynes, vice president of government affairs at the Portland Business Alliance.

Reasons for the additional congestion include growth increases and the improving economy, which is putting more commuters and freight trucks on the roads.

But spending more than the $15 billion anticipated to be available for Metro’s 2014 Regional Transportation Plan over the next 25 years can produce multiple benefits. If the entire $22 billion RTP was funded, wait times would be reduced to just 37 hours a year, making both household and business trips more efficient, says the study commissioned by a coalition of government and business organizations.

The study conducted by the Massachusetts-based Economic Development Research Group is expected to be a major focus of the summit. Persuading the 2015 Oregon Legislature to increase spending on infrastructure projects is a top priority of the Oregon Business Plan that will be discussed by government and business leaders at the Tuesday event at the Oregon Convention Center.

According to the study, congestion is an especially important issue in the region because the state’s economy is heavily dependent on goods and services that move along area highways and through the Port of Portland. Portland is the 26th-largest metropolitan region in the country but has the 16th-worst congestion, according to a recent report by the American Transportation Research Institute. Documented choke points include the Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River, the intersection of I-5 and Interstate 84, and portions of Interstate 205, Highway 26 and Highway 217.

Increasing transportation spending will have multiple benefits, the study says. There were around 346,400 transportation-related and transportation-dependent jobs in Oregon in 2013. More spending will produce $1.1 billion in additional annual income and nonmonetary benefits by 2040, or $788 per household. The potential return for every $1 invested at about the $15 billion level is $2.40.

Raising the additional money is a challenge, however. Other needs already identified by the Oregon Department of Transportation include an additional $3.44 billion to $5.2 billion for maintenance, and another $5.1 billion to conduct seismic upgrades of several major bridges that are expected to collapse during a large earthquake.

The Oregon Legislature passed its last major transportation funding package in 2009. Although legislators and transportation advocates have been talking about the need for a new package in the upcoming session, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber did not submit one in his proposed budget. That has led some state lawmakers to say they must do it themselves.

The first congestion study came out in 2005. It showed that many freight-dependent businesses already were beginning to move up deliveries to avoid rush-hour congestion. The new study includes interviews with business owners who say their shipments are now beginning in the middle of the night.

“The full capacity of the transportation system is already being used,” says Susie Lahsene, senior manager of transportation and land-use policy at Port of Portland.

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