Moving Freight

There is a lot of hand-wringing going on in some quarters of the business and transportation policy communities about the “freight problem.” How do we keep trucks moving on what appear to be congested roadways. Curiously, until recently there was only scattered data on this issue; the I-5 Task Force – aka “Trade Partnership” – made its recommendations based on virtually no freight data other than Port assertions that the volumes will grow.

The Portland Freight Master Plan has begun to pull data together from PDOT, the Port and ODOT. Some of that data shows that traffic volumes on two key industrial area arterials, Columbia Blvd. and Going Street, have actually declined in the last five years! Furthermore, 20 year projections show most of the growth in freight movement will occur in industrial/employment areas adjacent to the Willamette & Columbia Rivers, and the existing arterials there will handle that growth (see Technical Memo #4 PDF 4.6MB). Freight delays are likely on NW St. Helens road and SE McLoughlin, but those delays have more to do with commuters than with trucks. So maybe we can relax a bit when it comes to freight movement on the arterial front.

How about the regional freeway network?

One piece of data that was presented to the I-5 Task Force several years ago showed that only about 10% of the vehicles on I-5 in the peak hours are moving freight. Most of our congestion at those times is due to people driving to work, and most of them are alone in the their vehicles. Offering those commuters options to driving alone to work would appear to be the most cost effective means to increase the % of vehicles carrying freight in the peak hours.

Other interesting numbers to consider: 50% of congestion is incident related, which suggests that we can do a lot better in managing incidents. And last it should be noted that the peak hours (approx. two hours in the AM and three in the PM) represent just over 10% of the total operational time of any freeway. Put another way, for 90% of the time even our most congested freeway works pretty well. Efficiencies over 90% cost a lot of money!

The focus for those of us seeking to improve the movement of freight needs to be increasing the efficiency of existing roadway capacity – something any business would do. Give folks stuck on I-5 an option and many will happily take it. So watch out for “freight” projects that add capacity – they may only make matters worse for that vital sector of the transportation picture – everyone knows that most capacity increases will be overwhelmed by commuters – most of them alone in their cars – swearing at the trucks.

Because, when it comes to the subject of freight and how it gets around, It isn’t so much that the public isn’t conscious of a “freight problem,”… it just thinks trucks ARE the problem.

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