Region’s rail system has some unfinished business

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - I-5 traffic is getting worse but there's no plans afoot to do much about it.

(Originally published in the Portland Tribune Sept. 15 2015)

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - I-5 traffic is getting worse but there's no plans afoot to do much about it.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE – I-5 traffic is getting worse but there’s no plans afoot to do much about it.

Last week’s opening of the Orange MAX light-rail line to Milwaukie serves as a gentle reminder that Portland’s mass-transit system has some unfinished business — primarily the extension of the northbound Yellow line across the Columbia River and into Vancouver, Wash.

Though often proposed by political leaders in Salem and Portland, their counterparts in Olympia and Clark County have refused to pay their state’s share of the Yellow line extension’s cost, no matter its capability to reduce traffic congestion and commuting times for Vancouver residents.

In 2013, opposition to light rail led Washington’s Legislature to kill the proposed $3.5 billion Columbia River Crossing project that, in addition to the light-rail extension, would have included a seismic retrofit of the existing 50- and 100-year-old Interstate 5 spans over the river, an upgrade of several freeway interchanges and access points, and an improved bikeway.

Today, many politicians in Washington still see the light-rail component as a form of social engineering concocted by Portland liberals, while others fear it would lead to an increase in crime in Vancouver.

David Madore, chairman of the Clark County Council and a member of Southwest Washington’s Regional Transportation Council, wants Oregon to focus first on upgrading the notorious I-5 bottleneck at the Rose Quarter — a plan that could cost Oregonians billions of dollars.

Oregon’s politicians, on the other hand, have not been willing to support I-5 freeway expansion projects unless they also include transportation alternatives like expanded bikeways and light rail.

With neither side willing to compromise, traffic will remain stuck, and will get worse as time goes by. Everybody is affected, including businesses that rely on the freeway to ship goods.

An email exchange earlier this year illustrates the distance separating the two states. In April, Rep. Judy Clibborn, R-Mercer Island), the Seattle-area chairwoman of the Washington House Transportation Committee, asked for a meeting with Tina Kotek, the Democratic speaker of the Oregon House whose district is closest to the bridge. In response, Kotek expressed her lingering bitterness over Washington’s role in the loss of the CRC.

“We lost hundreds of millions of federal dollars that would have offset costs for taxpayers in our states and squandered more than 10 years of local planning efforts and millions of dollars in design and testing work,” she wrote.

“Right now,” Kotek added, “I’m focused on building support to pass a transportation package that addresses the transportation infrastructure maintenance backlog in Oregon. A bistate conversation regarding the I-5 corridor will have to wait for another day.”

To be precise, $190 million was squandered on planning and designing the CRC. The proposal died before a penny could be spent on construction.

The Oregon Department of Transportation rejected a proposal from environmentalists to build a modestly priced alternative design that included a scaled-down freeway upgrade in addition to light rail.

If the CRC had been approved, it would be about half-completed by now, according to Don Hamilton, Oregon Department of Transportation spokesman.

Unfortunately, when the CRC went away, the problem it was designed to resolve did not. Traffic congestion throughout both Portland and Vancouver has continued to get worse.

Vehicle Miles Traveled, a measure of the total amount of driving in Oregon, was up 6.4 percent during the first five months of 2015.

One reason: People are driving more now that the economy is doing better than it was during the recent economic downturn.

Another factor is the number of people moving to Oregon, as measured by the number of out-of-state driver’s licenses that are surrendered when drivers obtain their new Oregon licenses. In 2009, 58,628 people surrendered their old licenses. In 2014, the number reached 75,748 — a 29 percent increase.

A commonly heard myth is that the CRC would have reduced congestion. However, a number of studies show that new roadways are a magnet for additional traffic, and the new lanes will clog up again almost right away. But the light-rail component would have taken some cars off the road, giving commuters the choice of avoiding the I-5 mess.

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