Gridlock is Good
A New Transportaion Vision
By John A. Charles Jr.
Most residents of the Portland region would probably not be surprised to learn that there
is a bi-state government task force working to address I-5 traffic problems near the
Interstate Bridge. After all, we have task forces for almost everything in Portland.
What would surprise them is that reducing congestion is not a goal for key members of
the group. Rex Burkholder is one of them. Burkholder is a Metro Councilor and chairman
of JPACT, the powerful Metro committee that controls the flow of regional transportation
dollars in Portland. In August he successfully argued that the phrase “congestion
reduction” should be removed from the vision statement of the task force and replaced
with the words “mobility, reliability and accessibility.”
The average motorist might reasonably ask if more accessibility will improve commute
times. The answer is no. Councilor Burkholder is not interested in making life easier for
motorists, and neither are his many political allies. This is the new transportation vision
During the past decade, an audacious group of politicians and bureaucrats have taken
control of the regional transportation planning process, and their goals are to reduce
driving in Portland and promote a lifestyle centered around walking, bicycling and rail
transit. The group includes Congressman Earl Blumenauer, TriMet General Manager
Fred Hansen, and virtually all members of the Portland City Council, the TriMet Board,
the Metro Council, and the Multnomah County Commission.
The only thing that’s surprising is how bold they’ve become in stating their collective
(and collectivist) vision. It’s no longer a stealth campaign. Rick Gustafson, an influential
consultant whose firm operates the Portland Streetcar, told an audience at Portland State
University, “I like congestion. I’m not too concerned about somebody trying to escape to
Vancouver and then having to commute back to Portland.”
The programs being used to induce congestion come in a variety of bureaucratic names,
such as “road diets,” “transit-oriented development,” “boulevard treatments,” “green
streets,” and “traffic calming.” These labels sound harmless, almost soothing. But while
the public sleeps, vast amounts of tax monies are being diverted from necessary roadway
improvements to projects such as light rail, streetcars, a tramway, commuter rail, Amtrak,
bikeways, and the downsizing of urban roads. All of these projects will make life worse
for Portland motorists.
Unfortunately, it’s already too late to reverse any of this for at least the next decade. The
“congestion coalition” dominates all local governments, and few candidates running for
public office even understand what is happening, so things are going to get much worse
before they get better. The only question is how far down the region will have to sink
toward complete highway gridlock before voters decide they’ve had enough.
Columbia River Crossing: A symbol of political failure
The mismanagement of I-5 in Portland is an interesting case study of the new politics of
gridlock. During the 1990s it became clear that the rapid growth rate of passenger and
freight traffic through the Portland-Vancouver I-5 corridor would soon exceed the
carrying capacity of the highway. So in 1998 a bi-state leadership committee undertook a
preliminary analysis of the problem. They didn’t actually decide anything, but they
recommended a second public process to find a solution.
In January 2001, Governors Gary Locke of Washington and John Kitzhaber of Oregon
formed the I-5 Partnership. The group’s mission was to address the traffic problems on I-
5 from the I-84 interchange in Oregon up to the I-5/I-205 interchange north of
Vancouver. A 28-person bi-state task force of community, business and elected officials
managed the Partnership. The group had its own website, scheduled many public
hearings, and hired a professional facilitator to help manage the process.
They appropriately started with the premise that “doing nothing is not an option,” but
then proceeded to do virtually nothing. Early on, the task force members decided to
change the scope of their work so that they would only address I-5 from Vancouver down
to the Fremont Bridge. This conveniently omitted the bottleneck near the Rose Garden,
where I-5 only has two through-lanes in each direction. This is the single most congested
area in the entire state, and expanding I-5 to three lanes there had already been previously
approved (but never funded) by Metro as part of the Regional Transportation Plan.
Instead of using that as a logical starting point for solving the problem, as the two
governors had specifically directed, the group sidestepped it. This meant that regardless
of what they might subsequently propose in the North Portland stretch of I-5, it would all
be negated by traffic screeching to a halt near the Rose Quarter.
The official explanation for this decision was that any highway expansion in the Rose
Quarter segment of I-5 would have cascading effects on the entire I-405 loop; therefore
the loop itself should be studied. While there is some merit to this argument (and I-405 is
in fact being studied in a separate process), the same could be said of improvements made
north of that point on I-5 near Delta Park, where the task force later voted to expand the
highway from five to six through-lanes.
According to former Metro Councilor Rod Monroe, the loop issue was just a cover for
the real dispute, which was that a small but influential group of activists had long
dreamed of completely ripping out I-5 on the east side and either moving it off the river,
burying it or eliminating it altogether. Former Portland City Commissioner Charlie Hales,
an advocate of this view, once stated publicly that if we ever decided to get rid of the
Marquam Bridge, he’d volunteer to “push the plunger.”
That fantasy had been in remission for a while but had never actually died. During the I-5
Partnership process it gained enough traction to block any improvement in the Rose
Quarter section of the freeway.
With the Rose Quarter improvement off the table, attention then shifted to I-5 near Delta
Park, where the highway goes from three lanes down to two on the southbound side for
.81 miles, then goes back to three lanes. In a brief moment of sanity the task force agreed
to fix that bottleneck by adding a lane. However, the victory may be short-lived if ODOT
turns it into a High-Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lane, which is under consideration. We
already know from the HOV experience on the northbound side that this is a poor
location for a high-occupancy lane. The highway segment is too short to provide any real
time savings, and since most vehicles don’t qualify as HOV, the new capacity gets
The task force also concluded that the Interstate Bridge connecting Portland with
Vancouver was outdated. The Interstate Bridge is actually two bridges built side-by-side,
one in 1917 and the other in 1958. Although the bridges are not in any imminent danger
of collapse, they have a severe design limitation, namely that they were built too low to
accommodate some types of ships traveling on the Columbia River. Therefore they have
lift spans that must be raised an average of 30 times per month, except when the water
levels are low. A complete lift takes roughly 10 minutes and causes huge traffic tie-ups.
This is unacceptable for an interstate highway that links Canada, the western United
States and Mexico.
The task force decided that the existing structures should be replaced with an expensive
10-lane mega-bridge. The bridge would be high enough for ships to pass underneath and
would be designed to accommodate light rail. The rail plan endorsed by the task force
was for a loop that would run north across the Columbia from the existing rail terminus at
the Expo Center, traverse east along the SR 500 corridor in Washington, and then cross
the Columbia again over the Glenn Jackson/I-205 bridge where it would connect with
Eastside MAX near the airport.
The estimated price tag for the package of projects was roughly $2.2 billion, of which
more than half would be for light rail. There was no financing plan put forward for this,
and later it was discovered that it’s not feasible to run light rail over the Glenn Jackson
Bridge anyway. Nonetheless, these recommendations were adopted with much
ceremonial backslapping at the usual political venues such as the Portland City Council,
Metro and TriMet during 2003. Any dissenting views expressed by the public were
Once more, with feeling
Since this process accomplished so little, a third task force was appointed in early 2005.
In what might be called the “Incredible Shrinking Bridge Project,” the focus of concern
has now been reduced to a 5-mile stretch from SR 500 in Vancouver to Columbia
Boulevard in Portland, where it is estimated that more than 70 percent of peak-period traffic gets on or off the highway. Transportation officials refer to this as the “bridge
The new effort has been dubbed the Columbia River Crossing Project and has a 38-
member steering committee, a professional facilitator, and a small army of bureaucrats
headquartered in Vancouver. Apparently there is an inverse relationship between the size
of the highway segment that might actually get fixed and the size of the task force
assigned to do the fixing.
Therein lies a major part of the problem. As more people get to preside over the project,
it loses its focus. One would think that improving traffic flow on I-5 would be the central
goal of the process, but that is not the case at all. There are many competing visions at the
table. For Rex Burkholder and Portland City Commissioner Sam Adams, the primary
goal is to “get people out of their cars.” Commissioner Adams, who presides over the
Portland Office of Transportation, repeatedly stated during the September meeting, “The
problem is that we need to get single-occupant drivers out of their cars; otherwise, if we
build more capacity, SOVs [single-occupant vehicles] will just fill it up.”
This is a sentiment commonly expressed by self-styled progressives in Portland. They
believe that if we could just get more people to take light rail or walk to work, we
wouldn’t need more road capacity. In some theoretical sense that may be true, but there is
no practical way to make it happen. The fact is, vehicle miles traveled (VMT) is a
function of two things: job growth and increases in personal income. According to the
Oregon Department of Transportation, every new job in the Oregon economy adds about
15,500 annual VMT to the road system. If progressives are in favor of job creation—as
Commissioner Adams certainly avows to be—then they also have to be in favor of
increased road capacity to service those jobs.
Moreover, as statewide personal income rises, VMT also increases at a rate of about 360
miles per $1,000. Both locally and nationally, there is a straight-line correlation between
affluence and driving. As people become richer, they tend to drive more.
These relationships between VMT, personal income and job growth have been constant
in Oregon for the past 35 years and there is no evidence that simply punishing motorists
by withholding necessary road improvements will change their behaviors. In Portland,
daily vehicle miles of travel increased from 19.4 million in 1990 to 26.8 million in 2003,
despite the downsizing of key roadways (such as North Interstate Avenue) and massive
expenditures for rail transit projects.
The role of transit
Transit can play a small role in reducing congestion on I-5, but only if it is on express
buses. According to one official at C-Tran, the transit agency for Clark County, “Our
commuters are express bus commuters. If you replace express bus service with light rail,
they will go back to driving.”
Yet that is exactly the plan being promoted by TriMet. Originally an agreement had been
reached to offer both light rail and express bus service, but at a January 2002 meeting of
the I-5 Partnership, that was rescinded. As TriMet’s Fred Hansen told the Oregonian’s
Bill Stewart, “If we build light rail, I don’t want to tell people not to ride it.”
This is the standard TriMet approach: build an expensive light rail line, and then
eliminate all competing bus service so transit users only have one choice. Light rail
advocates know that if you offer a transit customer a choice between a slow train or an
express bus, most people would opt for the bus because it makes fewer stops and
therefore offers faster door-to-door travel time. But TriMet managers are not interested in
customer preference. They are building a light rail empire, and in order to generate
ridership they have to eliminate better alternatives.
They even have the chutzpah to claim that rail transit is faster than bus service. In a 1999
resolution adopted by JPACT, it was asserted that the Interstate Avenue light rail line
would be “46 percent faster than the bus;” yet now that the rail line has been open for
nearly two years, it’s clear that is not true. Anyone still in possession of a TriMet bus
schedule from 2003 can compare the travel times on the old Interstate bus route #5 with
the I-MAX and see that there has been no improvement.
Of course, no one is ever held accountable for such lies. The MAX line has been built,
the money spent, and who really remembers what was said years ago?
Vancouver: Things look different there
To some degree the tortuous path of the I-5 bridge crossing debate highlights some basic
cultural differences between Portland and Vancouver. Portland is a city desperately
clinging to an over-hyped reputation as a “model” of urban planning, even as public
school enrollment plummets, jobs disappear, and the number of under-maintained city
streets reaches record high levels. Downtown Portland in particular has become an urban
theme park for California equity refugees, empty nesters, DINKS (double-income, no
kids), and Yuppies, along with a large population of transients living off social service
Vancouver doesn’t have the international planning rep that Portland has, but it’s clearly a
booming city, as is the entire Clark/Skamania county region. People can get bigger
homes and yards for less money than in Multnomah County, the tax burden is much
lower, and transit officials focus sensibly on cost-effective bus service. In fact, consumer
demand for express bus service is so high that C-Tran recently instituted a higher fare to
ensure that the express service continues to be viable, and virtually all of the operating
costs for that service to Portland are now paid for by customers.
In contrast, farebox recovery at TriMet hovers at around 20 percent of operations, and
essentially zero for capital costs.
Tom Zelenka of Schnitzer Properties, a native of North Interstate Avenue and long-time
participant in transportation decision making, speaks for many when he says, “In
Vancouver, they’re building things. In Portland we just plan.”
The bigger picture
In October, the Columbia River Crossing steering committee re-inserted the words
“congestion reduction” back into the values and vision statement, alongside the words
“mobility, reliability and accessibility.”
That may be a small win for motorists, or it may just be unwillingness by the group to
make a decision. But as this battle is being waged over a segment of I-5, an over-arching
problem is being ignored: there is a need for substantial new highway capacity in the
The most obvious need is for a third bridge over the river. The Columbia River Crossing
discussion seems stuck on the concept of simply replacing the Interstate Bridge, but that’s
not going to solve the traffic problem. It would make more sense to toss light rail out of
the equation, upgrade or replace the Interstate Bridge with something designed just for
rubber-tired travel, and then look for other crossing sites in order to provide additional
new bridge capacity.
We have nine Portland bridges over the Willamette River but only two over the much
larger Columbia. Why do Portland politicians think there is something magic about two?
Pittsburgh, a comparably sized city built around three major rivers, has 27 river bridges.
One possible crossing site would be out in the Gresham area, at I-84 near 181st
A bridge there would drain off the thousands of commuters who daily cross the Glenn
Jackson Bridge and then drive to Gresham or other parts of east Multnomah County. In
the late afternoon on weekdays there is usually a long backup of drivers traveling
westbound on I-84 waiting to get onto I-205 and back over the bridge. A new bridge in
Gresham or Troutdale would eliminate this backup, thereby also improving traffic flow
on the Glenn Jackson Bridge.
Multiple sites should be investigated for future bridge construction in order to
accommodate the inevitable growth in motor vehicle traffic.
Planning for failure
The tragedy of the I-5 traffic situation is that the highway capacity problems we face
today, along with some of the solutions, were fully anticipated in the mid-1980s. For
example, in 1985 the Clark County Inter-governmental Resource Center noted that total
crossings over the two Columbia River bridges at that time were 154,980 per day. They
predicted that by 2010 the number would rise to roughly 267,400.
We now have about 265,000 daily crossings, so the highway shortage predicted for 2010
is already knocking at the door. But 20 years after those forecasts were made, we have no
political agreement on what to build, where to build it, or how to pay for it. All we have
is a third bi-state task force, larger and more cumbersome than the previous two, with
influential members working to ensure that the words “congestion reduction” do not
appear in its mission statement.
It’s sobering to graph the amount of state personal income spent on highway capital
projects over time in Oregon. The peak period for such spending was about 1963-64,
when we invested just over 3 percent of our state personal income on new highways. That
steadily declined over subsequent decades: 1.6 percent in 1975, 1 percent in 1985, and
about 0.6 percent in 2000.
All the spending of the 1955-75 era provided the highway infrastructure that sparked the
economic boom of the 1990s, and we are still riding that wave. But where were the
investments in the 1990s that will pay off in 2015 and beyond? There weren’t any.
After I-205 opened in 1982, Oregon officials essentially declared the interstate highway
system completed. The focus since then has been on fixed guideway transit such as light
rail, streetcar, commuter rail, Amtrak, and even an aerial tram. These facilities are simply
irrelevant to most people in the region and are useless for freight movement or
emergency service vehicles.
A 21st Century Transportation Agenda for Portland
Looking at an aerial view of I-5, it’s clear that we could improve the bottlenecks at Delta
Park and the Rose Quarter by expanding the highway to three through-lanes in each
direction (which we should do), but providing any more lane capacity beyond that would
be extraordinarily difficult. The region is simply too built up; the legal, financial and
political barriers to acquiring right-of-way for an entire new lane from the Columbia
River to southwest Portland would be nearly insurmountable.
Fortunately, there is a way to substantially increase the throughput of existing lanes
without actually pouring more concrete, and that’s to maintain travel speeds at around 55
miles per hour. Engineering studies have shown that when a highway is swamped with
too much demand and traffic breaks down to stop-and-go conditions, total through-put
declines. It’s similar to having a room full of panicked people rushing to leave through a
fire exit, compared with the same number of people in a separate room exiting in an
orderly fashion. All else being equal, the group that maintains order is likely to empty the
room faster than the group that all rushes to the door at once.
The only feasible way to ensure free-flow conditions on a highway is by converting it to a
tollway and then using variable prices on all lanes to avoid over-crowding at the peak
hours. This has been done for the past 10 years on the 91 Express Lanes in Orange
County, Calif., where there are 14 different prices for use of the four express lanes (two
in each direction) that run for 10 miles in the median strip of SR 91. The peak-hour prices are constantly adjusted to keep the number of vehicles per lane, per hour to a maximum
of around 1,600, and this limit ensures that travel speeds are always 55 miles per hour or
The system does not rely on old-fashioned cash payments at tollgates. Vehicles are
equipped with transponders, each owner maintains a private account to pay for use, and
electronic readers on overhead gantries placed at strategic locations deduct all user fees
on the fly.
Eight “free” lanes flank the four express toll lanes; thus the tollway provides 33 percent
of total capacity on SR 91. But because the toll lanes are priced at market rates (ranging
from $.11 per mile at the off-peak to $.76 per mile during the peak period), during the
times of highest demand the express lanes carry nearly 50 percent of the total traffic flow.
Put another way, the priced lanes carry twice as many vehicles per lane per hour as the
eight “free” lanes during the peak hours, because the unpriced lanes are in gridlock and
can only carry about 1,000 vehicles per hour. This shows that rational road pricing by
itself is a way to increase total vehicle throughput.
All of this is well known to Metro planners, who studied variable road pricing (also
referred to as “value pricing” or “congestion pricing”) for the region in the late 1990s.
The study found that implementing variable pricing on all lanes of the major regional
highways would improve peak-hour traffic speeds by about 52 percent.
If this were coupled with an aggressive rubber-tired transit program of express buses,
vanpools and jitneys (a form of shared-ride taxi), the attractiveness of transit would
increase because transit vehicles would not be stuck in traffic. Transit capital costs would
be negligible, because the new transit roadway capacity would be delivered entirely
through implementation of congestion pricing.
However, there is no political support for such a plan at either Metro or TriMet because
local planners are obsessed with reducing auto dependency and building expensive rail
Paying for new capacity
Even with market-based road pricing, however, there will still be a need for additional
highway capacity, and right now there is no realistic plan for financing anything beyond a
fraction of the anticipated need. The best way to solve that problem in the short term
would be to begin charging a simple $1 per trip toll on the two existing Columbia River
bridges, and require that the funds be used exclusively for highway improvements in the
two corridors. That would generate more than $265,000 per day in toll revenue, which
could then be used to sell bonds. The immediate priorities would be widening I-5 at Delta
Park and the Rose Quarter, improving a series of I-5 interchanges in North Portland, and
building a third bridge over the Columbia River.
Once we started this process and motorists began to see tolls as a means to improve the
system—rather than some form of punishment—we could expand the tolling to the regional network. This would include all lanes of I-84 from Gresham to I-5, Highway 26
from Hillsboro to I-405, Highway 217, I-5 South to I-205, and all of I-205. The use of
electronic tolling technology and variable rates would ensure free-flow conditions
everywhere, dramatically improving the attractiveness of Portland as a place to live and
It would also provide an obvious source of revenue for the next generation of highways
that are necessary: the Sunrise Highway between I-205 and Highway 26 in Clackamas
County, the Mt. Hood Parkway to connect Highway 26 and I-84 east of Gresham, and the
western bypass in Washington County to provide an alternative to Highway 217.
Oregon plans while the world builds
The Oregon approach seems especially timid when compared with other states. In
California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed 1,200 miles of new highways in his
January state-of-the-state address. His highway program “will actually reduce traffic
delays” he said, even as the population of the state grows.
The governor correctly noted, “We cannot freeze in the face of this future. We cannot
bury our head in the sand and say, ‘If we don’t build it, they won’t come.’ As my friend
Senator McClintock likes to say, ‘California stopped building three decades ago, and the
people came anyway. And now the people sit in gridlock on our roads…’”
Florida will be building many new highways and most will be tollroads. Jim Sebesta,
chair of the Florida State Senate transport committee and majority whip, told Tollroads
News that investor-owned tollroads will play a major role in providing mobility in the
state in the future. “The needs are greatly outstripping the ability of the existing systems
to deliver new road capacity. We have an extra thousand people a day in this state, and
we are $25 billion short of what we need.”
Sebesta said they would soon unveil plans for Florida's first privately funded tollroad and
that about “half a dozen” other private tollroad projects are under consideration.
Oregon has moved modestly in this direction but needs much more aggressive leadership
from the governor. ODOT has gone through a preliminary evaluation process to accept
bids for public-private partnerships that would allow construction of three small highway
segments: a connector from I-5 to Highway 99 near Sherwood (the lower segment of the
original western bypass), part of the Sunrise Corridor, and additional lanes to I-205
between I-5 and Oregon City. It also appears likely that the Newberg-Dundee bypass will
be built in the near future, also as an electronic tollroad.
This is the future of highway construction, and states that want to improve mobility will
embrace it. Texas certainly has, and no one has made a more eloquent defense of tolling
than State Rep. Mike Krusee, chair of the Texas House Transportation Committee. At a
tolling convention in Washington, D.C., in October, he said, “I’ll conclude by telling you
why tolls represent the American way. Americans do not tolerate shortages. Breadlines are for communist countries. Breadlines in the Soviet Union were caused by the absence
of a market mechanism to match supply with demand. The genius of the free market
American system is that for everything we produce, public or private, demand is
anticipated, and capital is raised to build the infrastructure to meet the demand.
“In the USSR, you could not raise capital. But here, we calculate how much people will
pay and how many will buy. We borrow against that anticipated revenue and build our
factories, our water treatment plants, our pipelines, and our universities. That is why
America never has permanent shortages. Oh, except in one thing: transportation. And
until we make the shift to a free market mechanism of finance—tolls—we will continue
to have shortages, in the form of congestion.
“Many Americans think congestion is inevitable; it is not. It is a breadline, it is un-
American, and we should not tolerate it.”
John A. Charles Jr. is president and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, a Portland think
BrainstormNW - February 2006