Spanning the gap

Rapid growth in Vancouver and Portland creates long delays along the I-5 bridge corridor

Steve Morasch
Guest Columnist

There are some days when it feels like it takes all day to travel across the Interstate Bridge between Vancouver and Portland. The experts at Columbia River Crossing predict that this feeling may soon become a reality. They estimate that within the next ten to 15 years rush hour will last between ten and 12 hours per day. Agencies from the Vancouver-Portland region have joined together to form Columbia River Crossing, a joint partnership designed to address the serious problems that plague the five-mile segment of I-5 between State Route 500 in Vancouver and Columbia Boulevard in Portland, including the bridge across the Columbia River.

Current Problems

Growth. The Vancouver-Portland region has experienced tremendous growth since the first span was built in 1917 and the second in 1958. The crossing has seen an increase of more than 95,000 vehicles per day since the 1960s. This means that the travel demands currently exceed the peak capacity of 5,500 vehicles per hour during peak periods. This increased travel results in stop-and-go traffic conditions lasting up to two hours in the morning and again in the afternoon.

Outdated Design. Short weave and merge sections, traffic accidents, narrow highway shoulder widths, close interchange spacing and vehicle breakdowns add to the delays and create hazardous conditions due to the outdated design of the bridge. All of these problems combine to increase the crash rates by up to two-and-a-half times higher than statewide averages for comparable urban freeways in Washington and Oregon. Moreover, there is a lack of safe areas for incident response, disabled vehicle pullout, and driver recovery, which impairs the ability to manage highway operations and recover from events that interrupt traffic flow.

Commerce. These road conditions also have an adverse impact on commerce in the local area, which in turn affects the region’s economy. I-5 is the primary corridor for commerce between the Vancouver-Portland region and also for the West Coast. Truck-hauled freight is dependent upon this corridor for access to the Port of Vancouver and other Clark County ports, as well as the Port of Portland. The congestion spreading to the off-peak periods commonly used by vehicular freight adversely affects delivery times and increases shipping costs.

Structure. Compounding all of these problems are the structural problems that plague the I-5 bridge. The bridge does not meet current seismic standards, leaving it vulnerable to earthquakes. Previous studies found that the existing bridge could not be upgraded to fully meet seismic design standards without full bridge reconstruction. This is a very serious problem because of the seismic activity frequently encountered on the West Coast.

Future Problems

The Vancouver-Portland region is expected to continue to grow, increasing by nearly 40 percent, from 1.8 million to 2.5 million people within the next 15 years. In addition, regional trade is expected to increase by 50 percent, from nearly 300 million tons to almost 450 million tons. The bridge is not currently equipped to handle these increases, resulting in further expansion of the peak periods.

Traffic congestion and delays will increase stop-and-go conditions occurring in both directions for ten to 12 hours on weekdays as a result of the increased growth. The current off-peak periods, used by freight carriers, will carry over into peak period congestion, increasing freight delays throughout the day. Travel times for buses are expected to double, increasing the commute between downtown Portland and downtown Vancouver to 55 minutes by 2020.

All of these increases will result in slower highway speeds, reducing access to jobs, shopping and recreational uses. Increases in travel times for freight haulers will adversely affect freight distribution and access to ports, having the effect of shrinking market areas served by the region. Various local and federal agencies are working together to identify and consider potential solutions to these problems. A four-year plan is in place to identify a range of potential alternatives, choose an alternative to be built and receive federal agency approval for that choice.

Getting Involved

Currently the Columbia River Crossing partnership is in the first year of that four-year plan and is seeking public input on defining the problem and identifying evaluation criteria. Interested citizens can take an online survey at the Columbia River Crossing Web site and sign up to receive notices about meetings, documents and new surveys available to the public at www.columbiarivercrossing.org. We can all do our part to contribute by getting involved in the process. We can also reduce congestion by scheduling trips across the bridge during non-peak hours, carpooling and using alternative forms of transportation.

Steve Morasch is a real estate and land use attorney in the Vancouver offices of Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt. He can be reached at 360-905-1433 or smorasch@schwabe.com. Columbia River Crossing
provided information regarding
the I-5 bridge corridor.

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