The People speak: Fix traffic congestion and provide reliable travel times

Ninety percent say ‘minimizing costs’ was important to extremely important

The Interstate Bridge Replacement Project (IBRP) has an Executive Steering Group (ESG) providing oversight of the team running the day-to-day operations of the effort. They meet monthly and at the Feb. 17 meeting the group members received feedback on a community survey taken by FM3 in November and December. Another community survey was about to be launched as the IBRP staff were holding multiple virtual “Open House” events, which included an online survey.

Not surprisingly, citizens on both sides of the river are frustrated with traffic congestion. Seventy percent of respondents said “we can’t wait any longer to develop plans to help fix our region’s long-term challenges with traffic and transportation,” according to the report. They are concerned about the cost of the potential multi-billion dollar project.

The unofficial results are in from the February online survey. Overwhelmingly, the people say traffic congestion and reliable travel times are their number one priority. That’s not surprising as the INRIX March 2020 travel study reported the Portland metro area has the nation’s eighth worst traffic congestion. That was consistent with their 2018 report. In 2019, Portland had the 10th worst congestion in the nation.

Yet feedback and direction given by ESG members at the end of the meeting appears to be the opposite of what people say they want.

Portland Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty said “We have a commitment to getting people out of their automobiles as much as possible.” Her focus is on racial justice. She wants to prioritize the impacts of any policy decisions on black, indigenous and other communities of color. “We’re absolutely committed to climate mitigation, and looking at green technology that we are prepared to put in place for the future.”

“The Portland region has a policy of only three through lanes in each direction,” said Metro President Lynn Peterson. She had previously served as Secretary of Transportation in Washington. “We are still working on the rest of our system to make sure that there are three lanes in each direction,” she said. “This portion already has three lanes in each direction. And so in terms of the future, and maybe this is getting into the values, but somehow I believe our Purpose and Need (statement) needs to reflect more about moving people and goods and services and less about the vehicles.”

The surveys of citizens

The recently completed IBRP survey provided people the opportunity to add their own remarks and concerns in a number of areas. These included concerns regarding equity, bike and pedestrian facilities, transit, transportation safety, impared freight movement, and earthquake vulnerability. People were given a road map and allowed to mark locations of traffic congestion, safety problems, connection problems, the need for transit, and much more. They were allowed to describe in their own words the problems they encountered.

“Congestion and reliability” was the first choice. Unofficial survey results as of about 11 p.m. March 1 showed 6,285 voters listed congestion. That was 2,434 more than second place transportation safety.  Earthquake vulnerability was right behind transportation safety with just 21 fewer votes. It should be noted in ranking priorities, people were allowed to rank order their top three categories of six.

At the bottom of the list was “Inadequate bike/pedestrian path” with just 1,670 votes. Impared freight movement received 2,342 votes and limited public transit received 2,939 votes. 

This was the second IBRP community survey. 

A formal, more scientific survey was conducted in late November and early December by FM3 Research. It had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.3 percent. The results appear to mirror other government agency surveys on people’s priorities, and were reported to the ESG in February. 

Traffic congestion topped voters’ concerns, with 68 percent saying it is very or extremely concerning. A major earthquake was second with 51 percent very or extremely concerned. The survey canvassed 917 registered voters in Clark, Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties. According to IBRP staff, they over-sampled people of color and Clark County citizens. 

Overall, the cost of the project was people’s largest concern when asked an open-ended question. Fully 35 percent of respondents stated cost concerns. Next was “continued delays” at 22 percent and “government mismanagement” at 19 percent. At the bottom of the list was “will not include public transit” at just 2 percent. 

IBRP staff reported traffic congestion was the top concern and risk of an earthquake was people’s second concern in the fall survey by FM3. Reasons for opposition was the cost or concerns about mismanagement or delays. Graphic IBRP
IBRP staff reported traffic congestion was the top concern and risk of an earthquake was people’s second concern in the fall survey by FM3. Reasons for opposition was the cost or concerns about mismanagement or delays. Graphic IBRP

The end of the survey asked people how they traveled prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. The overwhelming majority, 84 percent, said they regularly drove alone. Half the respondents crossed the Columbia River on a bridge. The bottom responses were 21 percent rode a bicycle and 27 percent rode public transit. A larger number used a rideshare service like Lyft or Uber at 31 percent.

The 84 percent number mirrors a 2018 PEMCO survey of Oregon and Washington drivers, where 94 percent preferred their cars.  Rep. Vicki Kraft (Republican, 17th District) cited that survey in a 2018 letter to Gov. Jay Inslee. “When asked their preferred method of transportation was to commute to work, 94 percent said they prefer to drive,” wroke Kraft. “They noted it was faster and more convenient than other modes of transportation.”

In 2012, a Metro survey indicated 84 percent of Portland-area drivers preferred using their cars.

An April 2018 Oregon Transportation Commission survey found 51 percent of citizens want to “expand and improve interstates and interstate bridges;” another 14 percent want expanded arterials.

A January 2019 Metro poll showed the number one priority was roads and highways. They reported 31 percent of citizens want “widening roads and highways” as their top priority. The Portland Tribune summarized: “On its own, improving public transit is a lower priority than making road improvements and the more overarching goal of easing traffic — voters still overwhelmingly rely on driving alone to get around,” reads the poll’s conclusions.

In the FM3 survey for the IBRP, people were asked are things in the Portland/Vancouver region generally headed in the right direction, or are they on the wrong track? The majority, 56 percent said “wrong track,” with just 29 percent saying “right track.” Fifteen percent chose to not answer.

Asked to rank a list of nine issues as problems or concerns, “lack of public transportation” came in dead last, with only 14 percent saying it was extremely serious or a very serious problem. One up from the bottom was “lack of transportation choices other than driving” at 19 percent. Traffic came in fourth at 49 percent, with unemployment and the cost of housing as the top two at 67 and 66 percent.

Respondents were allowed to list what they had heard about the IBRP project and the main issues. Disagreements about who is paying (OR/WA) was the top issue at 27 percent. The plan being expensive or having tolls were cited by 14 and 13 percent. Only 8 percent cited public transit and the bridge is too old or not safe came in last at 2 percent. Ten categories were cited in the report.

People were read a statement specifically citing the age of each bridge, citing the cost of maintenance through 2040, and stating the bridge is not safe in an earthquake (no magnitude). With that prompting, they then answered that earthquakes and/or safety were the largest reason for the project, at 38 percent. It was “necessary or needs to get done” came in second at 29 percent. The expense of the project came in 3rd at 15 percent and traffic congestion was 4th at 13 percent.

Ranking the overall importance for a project, 68 percent chose growing traffic congestion as their top priority. Half were concerned about a major earthquake, and the bottom issues were transit and bike/pedestrian related at 42 and 34 percent. 

Asked about tolling to help pay for the bridge, 34 percent felt tolls were “very unacceptable.” Whereas 24 percent felt tolls were “very acceptable.” Overall, people were split on tolling.

On their political view, 39 percent of respondents indicated they were somewhat or very liberal whereas just 23 percent were somewhat or very conservative. In the middle were 28 percent saying they were politically moderate.

A 2020 INRIX report stated drivers in the Portland metro area lost 89 hours being stuck in traffic. In 2017, ODOT’s “Value Pricing” team told the Vancouver City Council that 72 percent of Oregon citizens say congestion is a very serious problem. The Interstate 5 corridor was congested over 12 hours a day. There were 35 bottlenecks in the region at the time.

In remarks to the Dec. 2020 Bi-state Bridge Committee of legislators, Sen. Lynda Wilson (Republican, 17th District) emphasized similar points. “We can’t lose sight of the fact that the primary purpose is to serve the commuters and freight haulers,” she said. She listed three primary concerns — commuters, freight mobility, and safety.

Later in the meeting Wilson added: “it just concerns me that we’re not keeping our eye on the ball here with freight mobility and congestion relief and the safety of the bridge.”

In her 2018 letter to Gov. Jay Inslee, Rep. Kraft stated: “I ask you to stop pressing mass transit on our citizens and instead support a 3rd bridge for the benefit of our commuters, freight community, and statewide commerce.”

Citizens might wonder, will the IBRP administrator Greg Johnson follow the desires of the people on both sides of the river? How will he significantly reduce traffic congestion and improve the movement of freight?

At the Feb. 17 ESG meeting, there were some surprising statements from members of the steering group providing direction and oversight of the project. During a lengthy discussion about what had changed from the Columbia River Crossing (CRC) until today, there was a lot of discussion about equity and climate change.

Peterson mentioned the cost of lost time to people. “Let’s just put on the table that there is a cost right now to the level of congestion,” she said. “And that cost is incredibly high to people in terms of their time, as well as whatever fuel they’re burning while they’re on that bridge.”

But later Peterson emphasized the need for high capacity transit. “One of the big things that’s different on both sides of the river in terms of travel demand is that conversation around tolling; as well as high capacity transit and the value that both sides have on high capacity transit now and getting that across both sides. So I think these two things are extremely important to get into the Purpose and Need statement.” 

This is contrary to the FM3 survey showing public transportation at the bottom of citizens’ concerns. When given an open ended opportunity to state their biggest concern, only 2 percent of respondents mention public transit.

Furthermore, the survey showed 77 percent felt “maximizing bridge lanes to carry more vehicles” to be very to extremely important. Only 10 percent said that was not important.

Scott Hughes, chair of the Regional Transportation Council, mentioned a population growth of 27 percent in Clark County since 2005. He went on to say “we can’t forget that this bridge will be here for another 100 years, if it does get replaced. The population growth in 20, 30, 40 years from now is going to be significantly higher.”

Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny Ogle also mentioned the growing populations of Vancouver and Clark County which in turn increased congestion. But she focused on C-TRAN’s expanded Bus Rapid Transit system and their efforts at bus on shoulder. She said two separate times the growth has triggered residents demanding reliable transit. 

The demands for transit the mayor mentioned were not reflected in the survey results, nor in declining cross-river C-TRAN bus ridership numbers. 

Last October, Rep. Kraft asked Bi-State Bridge Committee members “what is the need for transit?“  Recall that over 300,000 vehicles cross the two bridges across the river on an average day.

C-TRAN offers seven express bus lines from Vancouver to Portland. They travel both the I-5 and the I-205 corridors. C-TRAN recently provided the following data on express bus ridership from 2016 through the end of August. (See previous Clark County Today story here.)

Average weekday boardings (one person boards two times a day).

• 2016 – 3,040

• 2017 – 2,874

• 2018 – 2,844

• 2019 – 2,892

• 1/1/2020 – 8/31/2020* – 1,213 

C-TRAN provided the following statement in response to those ridership totals: “Commuter ridership has declined 58.2 percent (due to COVID-19). Commuter ridership includes Express bus routes only.” Asked how much express ridership has increased from its lowest levels, C-TRAN reported: “The sum of the average previous five weeks ending May 16, 2020 compared to the same period ending the week of Sept. 26, 2020 reflects a 23.7 percent increase in commuter boardings.” 

In wrap up remarks, many ESG members echoed each other’s comments about equity and climate change. Yet in open-ended responses, only 3 percent of survey respondents mentioned the environment or impacts on communities of color or low-income communities. 

In those open-ended responses, cost concerns were number one, mentioned by 35 percent of respondents. Delays or postponement were the next two at 22 and 19 percent. The impact on traffic was 4th at 13 percent.

Respondents were split on tolling with 52 percent finding tolls acceptable and 47 percent saying they were unacceptable.

When asked for priorities for the design of the bridge, respondents were given a scale of 1 to 7, where 1 was not important at all and 7 was extremely important. “Reducing traffic congestion” was important to extremely important for 93 percent, and 90 percent said maximizing lanes to carry more vehicles. When it came to efficient movement of freight, 93 percent said it was important to extremely important. Minimizing cost also rated extremely high at 90 percent.

The verbal discussions of the members of the ESG seemed to mention traffic congestion as the excuse for pushing transit versus citizens desire for more lanes and for reliable travel times in their own cars.

IBRP staff responded, via email, to a Clark County Today question seeking more information and clarification about a statement that there is a “growing demand for modal choices.” 

Frank Green, assistant program administrator of the Interstate Bridge Replacement (IBR) program responded.

“The comments on slide 46 of the Feb. 17 Executive Steering Group presentation, including the reference to growing demand for modal choices, were highlighting some of the feedback we have received from partners on potential changes that should be taken into consideration as the program works to update the Purpose and Need and establish the community Vision and Values.

“The program is committed to identifying a multimodal solution that accommodates all people and modes of travel to provide equitable access to jobs and critical services. As the program moves into alternatives development, traffic analysis and travel demand modeling will be conducted to reflect current and anticipated future demand for different modes of travel including vehicles, transit, and active transportation including bikes and pedestrians.”

Green’s comments follow Portland metro voters rejecting a $5 billion transportation package last fall, where over half the money was going to a light rail expansion project. Clark County voters have rejected light rail multiple times as well.

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