A Tale of Two Transportation Projects

“Where’s the Value?”

Last fall the Vancouver City Council was briefed on Oregon’s “value pricing” and the Policy Advisory Committee. The stated purpose of “value pricing” (tolls to us), was to reduce congestion. (Report here.)

They were told that 72 percent of Oregon citizens say congestion is a very serious problem. Southwest Washington citizens agree. The Interstate 5 corridor is now congested over 12 hours a day. There are 35 bottlenecks in the region.

Here are two different responses to traffic congestion in the region.

Comparing the Rose Quarter and the SR-14 “congestion relief” projects. A tale of two transportation projects.

The states of Oregon and Washington each have a transportation project in the Portland Metro area to relieve congestion. Both are 2-lane highways. Both are two miles long. That’s where the similarity ends.

WSDOT’s plan for SR-14

SR-14 gets congested every morning as traffic pours onto the highway at the 164th Ave. onramp. Traffic moves a bit faster for a brief time, until just before the I-205 exit. In the evening, it’s just the opposite as traffic exiting I-205 heading east begins merging with SR-14.

The legislature and WSDOT have approved the addition of two lanes, one in each direction, on SR-14 between 164th and I-205.

The State of Washington will spend $25 million to add one new lane in each direction. That’s four miles of highway lanes being added. It’s new vehicle capacity to help reduce congestion.

The project website states:  

In response to increasing congestion on State Route 14 during peak commute hours in east Vancouver, this project works to improve travel times on a consistent basis from the SR 14/I-205 Interchange to Southeast 164th Avenue.

This stretch of SR 14 is often a bottleneck during peak commute times, with substantial traffic merging at the SR 14/I-205 Interchange and at SE 164th Avenue. This project will address safety, congestion and inconsistent travel times along the corridor.

The project will also likely add sound reduction walls in some locations to mitigate added traffic noise.

The total project will build 4 miles of NEW highway lanes for $25 million.

The Rose Quarter

Oregon’s Rose Quarter interchange on I-5 is a 2-mile, 2-lane section of the Interstate freeway that has the HIGHEST accident rate of any section of road in Oregon — three times the accident rate of the Terwilliger Curves.  It’s a SAFETY issue, first and foremost, besides being the primary bottleneck on I-5 in the region.

Portland also has the 12th worst traffic congestion in the nation, with an annual cost of $3.9 Billion, and the average driver spent 50 hours in congestion in 2017. That’s up from 47 hours in 2016. Here’s a KATU news report. It was triggered by a 2017 INRIX study on traffic congestion.

What’s being proposed for the Rose Quarter?

Oregon’s HB2017 laid out a transportation plan for the greater Portland Metro area. It would spend just over $1 Billion on three projects, including $450 million at the Rose Quarter.

An Oregonian news report in Sept. 2017 indicated the following.

“We see the Rose Quarter project as really reconnecting the central city,” said Art Pearce, the Transportation Bureau’s manager for projects and planning. “It has the potential to reconnect the area, make it more of a destination … and having more of the bike and pedestrian streets people have come to expect in other parts of Portland.”

The state, Pearce said, originally proposed a much larger expansion of the freeway. What’s proposed today represents years of negotiations that curtailed those earlier plans.

“It will indeed help the operations of the system, but it’s not designed to be a substantial expansion of the capacity,” Pearce said. “That’s what makes it a compromise.”

The project website states: “The section of I-5 between I-84 and I-405 is a heavily traveled corridor and experiences the highest crash rate in the state of Oregon. Located between multiple closely spaced interchanges, this segment of I-5 also experiences some of the highest traffic volumes in the state, resulting in up to 12 hours of congestion each day.”

The core of the proposal:

As you look at the ODOT graphic above, the two major YELLOW areas are concrete “lids” to be built over the top of I-5. They will do NOTHING to relieve traffic congestion on I-5 at the Rose Quarter. At the lower end, you’ll notice the thin yellow line — a “Clackamas Bicycle & Pedestrian Overcrossing.”  This too will do NOTHING to relieve traffic congestion on I-5.

During a Fall 2017 walking tour of the project area, an ODOT spokesman answered a question about the cost of the bike/pedestrian bridge, saying “$30 million to $50 million,” as it hadn’t been designed yet.

What are they proposing on I-5 to reduce traffic congestion? They are closing one on-ramp and relocating another on-ramp. They will build TWO “auxiliary lanes,” one in each direction. This is where vehicles merge on and off the interstate. These auxiliary lanes should reduce some of the rear end accidents that happen as a result of vehicles not having enough distance to merge on to, or off of, the highway. The experts indicate these additions “may” reduce accidents by 30% to 50%.

Some simple math shows the “fix” won’t solve the SAFETY issue at the Rose Quarter. If the Rose Quarter accidents are 300%, and the Terwilliger Curves are 100%, then a 30% reduction means the Rose Quarter will be 200% the accidents of the Terwilliger Curves. If the “experts” are lucky and there’s a 50% reduction, then the Rose Quarter will be 150% of the Terwilliger Curves. It will still be the site of the HIGHEST accident rate of any road in Oregon.

One would think SAFETY would be the number one priority of both ODOT and the state legislature.

Here’s a Portland Mercury report:

For $450 million (an exceedingly early estimate that many suspect will rise), ODOT wants to create an additional “auxiliary lane” in each direction through Rose Quarter.

That means that the on-ramps onto I-5 that currently force abrupt weaving will continue as lanes, offering drivers more time to merge with I-5’s traffic. ODOT believes the new lanes will cut crashes by 30 to 50 percent—and when there are crashes, new shoulders will get disabled vehicles away from the flow of traffic.

Taken together, ODOT says the improvements will shave 6.5 minutes off travel time during the peak morning commute, and eight minutes during evening rush hour, “with more reliability mid-day.”

But you’ll note they are NOT adding any new THROUGH LANES to I-5 at the Rose Quarter.

From the same Mercury news report, the Oregon Truckers Association weighs in:

“You need to recognize that that I-5 Rose Quarter section is the only two-lane section of the freeway between Canada and Mexico that’s through an urban center,” says OTA President Jana Jarvis. “We see a great need for added capacity.” (ODOT insists that auxiliary lanes don’t actually create “added capacity,” instead smoothing out the capacity that’s already in place.)

An OPB reporter at one of the ODOT “Value Pricing” Policy Advisory Committee Board meetings told me that HALF of the money proposed for the Rose Quarter will be spent on “Community Redevelopment“. Those are the two concrete “lids” over the top of I-5, the bike/pedestrian bridge, and perhaps a little more.

Portland City Commissioner Dan Saltzman said: “. . . the project is far more than simply a freeway expansion, as the critics claim. As refined and approved by the council in the N/NE Quadrant Plan, Saltzman argues it is a safety improvement and redevelopment project that will help unite the area by adding pedestrian and bike connections, too.”

Those “transportation dollars” are being spent on “community redevelopment”. This is how politicians bend the rules by taking money meant for roads and bridges and spending it elsewhere.

So in this tale of two transportation projects, which is the better “value”?

Which transportation project actually reduces traffic congestion?

WSDOT and the legislature deserve credit for using transportation dollars in an efficient manner that actually REDUCES CONGESTION!

Washington will build two miles of NEW highway lanes for $25 million on SR-14, increasing its vehicle capacity giving commuters significant relief.

Oregon will add ZERO new through lanes on I-5 at the Rose Quarter. They will build two new lids across I-5, and build a bike/pedestrian crossing over I-5 as part of their “community redevelopment”. Commuters will experience minor relief at the end of this massive expenditure. This community redevelopment project will consume HALF of the $450 million Oregon will spend.

If you think WSDOT’s SR-14 project is an anomaly, check out the 18th Street exit off I-205. That’s another almost 2 mile section of a highway where WSDOT spent $40.6 million to add new lanes and on and off ramps to I-205. Here’s the web page for the project.

Clearly if one is interested in reducing traffic congestion, adding new vehicle capacity is a must. Getting a new through lane in each direction for $25 million is a great value, compared to zero new through lanes at the Rose Quarter for $450 million.

Then there’s the issue of Oregon’s plans to charge TOLLS on both I-5 and I-205 to help pay for part of their transportation (and community redevelopment) funding. But that’s another story.

Here are my comments at the ODOT “Value Pricing” Open House in Vancouver in late January.