Avoiding Portland traffic at all costs

Traffic in Portland is a challenge for North Coast drivers looking to get anywhere else fast.

It doesn’t take a traffic engineer to determine that Portland is highway-impaired. Traffic in Oregon’s largest city is slow.

How slow is it, you ask?

A few years ago, the state Department of Transportation estimated that 34,600 hours a day were wasted in Portland traffic jams. That’s nearly four years of people’s time that was wasted each day. We’d bet the number is much larger now.

And just think of what all that stalled traffic does to the climate. A car or truck stuck in Portland traffic is producing carbon dioxide but getting zero miles per gallon. By that standard alone, Portland must be a major contributor to climate change.

Portland traffic is so bad people headed for the airport often have to factor in an extra hour of drive time just to avoid missing their flights.

Portland traffic is so bad the state Legislature set aside $25 million to help agricultural shippers in the nearby Willamette Valley avoid it.

The plan is to build an “intermodal facility” somewhere in the Willamette Valley south of Portland. Trucks will haul containers full of hay and other agricultural commodities from farms and processors to a loading terminal where the containers can be loaded onto railroad cars. From there, trains would go to ports in Tacoma or Seattle for export overseas, thus avoiding Portland traffic snarls. The Port of Portland handles only a tiny number of container ships, making the trip to Tacoma and Seattle necessary.

It should be noted that there are already three such intermodal facilities in the region — including one at the port — but all are in Portland. Trucks hauling containers to those facilities are just as likely to get caught in traffic.

If Interstates 5, 205 and 405 had adequate capacity, and if traffic not bound for Portland could avoid its multi-lane parking lots, many problems could be solved. But, for whatever reason, that is not to be.

Having a $25 million intermodal facility in the valley represents the next best thing for valley growers and processors who still have to get their crops and goods to ports for shipment to overseas customers.

In the running are two proposals. One would be built in Brooks, a few miles north of Salem. The other would be a repurposed paper mill in Millersburg, a few miles south of Salem.

North Coast drivers have to make hard decisions when planning trips to points east. Do we try to avoid the ever-growing rush hour time windows, just brave the traffic, or plan lengthy detours that can add hours to a journey?

Any solution appears to be years away, and expensive to boot.

The Oregon Transportation Commission voted unanimously recently to seek federal approval for tolling Interstates 5 and 205 through the Portland area and to study creating a seamless loop of tollways around the city. Those tolls might also extend to Interstate 405, Interstate 84, U.S. Route 26, State Highway 217 and sections of U.S. Route 30.

Unless there’s a massive national investment in public transportation networks, such as passenger rail — highly unlikely — we will have to rely on our automobiles for decades to come. And tolls may be the only way to get new roads built.

Those of us who have experienced East Coast traffic snarls sincerely hope the Portland planners take to heart the lessons learned there. Any toll road that forces drivers to stop and make change creates miles-long backups.

Only systems like EZPass that allow vehicles to whiz by and record the toll electronically have any hope of reducing congestion. Drivers without passes could have their license plates scanned, with automated bills arriving in the mail, much as camera speed traps operate. It smacks of Big Brother, but it works.

Any solution that allows us to travel around Portland, rather than through it, is worthy of pursuing — even tolls. No one likes to pull out their wallet just to get from point A to point B in their automobile. But to do nothing, and allow our roads to become ever more unusable, isn’t an option.

We need to think big for the future. President Eisenhower thought big in the 1950s when he built the national interstate system. It transformed our nation. What will transform travel in the 21st century?

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