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.

15 responses to “Moving Freight”

  1. I would have to agree 100%. If we where “really” worried about transit we could always setup load points outside of the city and train it in.

    But then of course we don’t really have a freight problem. It is more of a “commuter” problem.

  2. This data is great for making sure that our main I5 choke point at the Columbia River handles the problem for the next fifty years, plus the stat of 50% incident related capacity failure. If we can get Washington to support a straighter, safer crossing just to the East of the current alignment we can get three lanes to be more efficient with expansion to eight lanes when/if necessary.

    But in this thread we are only talking about truck freight and rail freight is the real issue as I understand our local port/rail issues. If we can separate our expanding inter-city high speed rail from the rail freight traffic then both modes become more efficient.

    I put in my pitch for High Speed Rail to be designed into the new bridge to the engineering consultants for Columbia R. Crossing at todays Peter DeFazio Thank You event at PSU. Very nice manager. Bridge will take ten years to design, ten years to build per the consultant. Maybe we can reduce it to seven and seven.

    Took lots of photos today in the Pearl and SoWa for my hope to untie all our 1960s designed freeways (1. Plan is not more capacity, but to keep demand routes from conflicting (very unsafe crossovers). 2. USPS site for a baseball stadium. My second choice). But I noticed just how slow freight moves through the Union Station Area (5 MPH guess). Unacceptable!

    Will we be able to attach jpgs and mpgs at some point?

  3. I don’t think Movable Type has any way to automatically attach photos (if somebody knows about a plug-in, let me know), but if you e-mail them to me I’ll put them up and give you a URL to link to them.

  4. This site:

    Allows free image hosting, and is particularly marketed towards message forums. You can put a direct link to the image if you want, so it can show up in standard forums.

    Of course, this is a blog site… but just thought I’d share it with you guys.

  5. Justin, what I’m looking for is something that would extend MT so a visitor could attach an image to their comment all in one action, rather than integrating another tool.

  6. Sure, traffic in Portland may only be congested during the peak period. But the limited space on Portland freeways (two through lanes on I-5 through Delta Park and the Eastside Industrial corridor) means that ANY incident negatively affects traffic, whereas with a consistent three lanes in each direction, traffic would recover faster after an incident. The weaving motions as lanes drop out due to exits also contribute to accidents as well.

    And in my travels, Portland weekend traffic is continuing to grow. In many metro areas, Saturday traffic is starting to get to levels of peak hour congestion. Certainly the roadways on weekends are often at or near “flow capacity”, where if you put more cars on the road the speed will drop (and thus less vehicles are moved per hour). And not all freight can move via rail.

    The other thing to consider is when the warehouses, freight yards, etc. are open. Los Angeles recently had a pilot program to open the ports to nighttime shipping traffic. As traffic congestion grows, Portland may be forced to do the same thing, which may not be a good thing for a lot of the neighbors. Obviously Portland’s port is nowhere near the size of the bigger ports to the north and the south, but it is something that you have to consider in the 20-30 year long range time span.

  7. “if you put more cars on the road the speed will drop (and thus less vehicles are moved per hour). ”

    This seems logical, but the transportation engineers say it isn’t true. The greatest number of vehicles moved per hour is actually at a speed between 25 and 40 mph if I recall correctly. As speeds increase beyond that point the distance needed between vehicles more than cancels out any increase in speed.

    London has been using this fact to manage traffic congestion. They lower speed limits as congesting increases and use reader boards to inform people of the appropriate speed. They also have done a public education campaign around the reasons for slower speed. I believe they have both reduced accidents (which are a major source of delay on any freeway) and increased the number of vehicles the highways will handle.

    The problem at Delta Park is a hard one. If you allow all three lanes of traffic that come across the bridge to continue south there is no space for people who want to get on the freeway south of Delta Park. The solution to that is going to be ramp meters on the freeway entrances that will create delays and force that traffic onto local streets and hopefully onto transit. Essentially, we are speeding up the commutes for people from Clark County at the expense of job access for people in North and Northeast Portland.

    What ought to be clear is that Lenny is correct. In most places where there is congestion, we can’t add capacity for freight because any new capacity will be used up by commuters instead. Or we need to come up with creative solutions to protect freight capacity like freight only lanes.

  8. I don’t see addressing the choke point at Delta Park as adding capacity so much as it is addressing a condition that affects traffic flow and safety (no shoulders).

    That said, Lenny is spot on. We aren’t getting nearly enough performance out of the current road capacity and a lot could be done to move trips off the interstate and on to the surface grid, or moving some of those non-work/school trips to off-peak times. Generally speaking, about 35% of most people’s trip length is 2 miles or less – very walkable or bikeable. Certainly we can create more room on surface streets for longer through trips by shifting some of these short trips to non-car modes.

  9. The irony of the I-5 Delta widening project is that it takes away an existing “add lane” for freight southbound off Columbia Blvd…the key E/W freight arterial for the entire Columbia Corridor.

    I-5 narrows at Delta (and on the Eastbank) for good reason…lots of trips start and end there. 1/3 to 1/2 of the trips over I-5 are local, so vehicles are exiting at Jantzen Beach, MLK, Marine Dr., etc. And lots of trips are starting in the Corridor and need to get on to I-5 south. Exit-only lanes and Add-lanes are logical ways to address these flows.
    The Delta widening is a politically driven project to satisfy a deep emotional distaste that Clark county commuters have for that stretch of freeway…they take the narrowing to two lanes very personally.
    It has nothing to do with freight…except that it makes things worse.

  10. “I don’t see addressing the choke point at Delta Park as adding capacity so much as it is addressing a condition that affects traffic flow and safety (no shoulders).”

    I don’t think it really is adding capacity either. But it is shifting who will have use of the capacity from North and Northeast Portland to Clark County. And that will have mostly negative consequences for both places. Encouraging rural development in Clark County and reducing opportunities for people in North and Northeast Portland.

  11. On the subject of freight rail, the I-5 Task Force consultants did an excellent job analyzing freight rail congestion in Portland…which rivals Chicago!
    They suggested a dozen or so small projects with a price tag in the $100M range to improve things for the next 20 years.
    It did not include more tracks across the river. A new or rebuilt rail bridge is of more interest to the barge folks.
    That said, a new rail bridge with a wide lift span, a third track for passenger rail and a two lane freight arterial road between the ports and adjacent industrial areas makes a lot more sense than more traffic lanes on I-5.
    Lenny Anderson, Swan Island TMA, Member I-5 TF

  12. Lenny,

    Thanks for the correct data. Rail Freight is the issue, not truck freight. If we can get the Columbia River rail bridge rebuild as a safer bridge for barges and include a local access bridge to support the ports would be more efficent. I’m unsure the Port of Portland would like the area at the west end of Hayden Island somehow reduced for marine activity though.

    But my point is that we don’t need to build a bridge just for rail (freight or passenger). We need to incorporate a passenger rail capacity into the Columbia River Crossing. The down river bridge is then for freight only (no conflicts at the three rail crossings on the two rivers or in North/Northwest Portland and West Vancouver).

    Give us a three tower suspension bridge to correct the barge safety issue (straight shot) and fit the North tower under the Pearson Airport flight path. The main tower (huge with observation deck) will be near the South bank. Make the bridge robust enough to handle all modes of transport. Charge people to ride the elevator to the observation deck and make both metro interstate bridges toll bridges. That should make the Vancouverites think twice about using their cars for everything.

    That design saves as much as $1 Billion for another separate bridge. Remove the two old I5 bridges and keep the Columbia River Slough bridge for local access to Hayden Island.

    Ray Whitford

  13. I like that idea a lot.

    Something does need to be done about Vancouverites car attitudes. If another rail (passenger dedicated) path was assigned then commuter rail could even run into Vancouver which could alleviate freight rail congestion, and possibly (especially with some type of incentive in place) decrease the amount of cars on the I-5 route.

    …these conversations always make me glad that I don’t drive a car more than 2-3 times a month. :)

  14. Aha, the Vancouverite problem! They do come into this city, with all the attendant vehicle pollution, and then scurry back to their Clark County hiding places. OTOH they pay taxes on their income to the State of Oregon and also patronize many Portland businesses (avoiding their Wash. sales tax).

    So if we, in METRO fashion, propose creating local jobs we would lose out on the income tax they pay. Wash. state would have an interest, though, because I suppose then they would be less likely to travel to Oregon to shop. So Olympia should be favorable to Clark Co. jobs; and they should take some leadership in addressing this concern. I have always believed that Clark Co. actually wanted the MAX; they just didn’t want to have to finance any of it. PDX also picks up tax revenue from Clark Co. flyers.

    What about a one way toll on the bridge: start collecting a few dollars to enter Oregon? Of course, the toll would not apply to mass transit, therefore producing another incentive to leave the car in Clark Co. We also could charge mass transit rides at a Portland rate, as an incentive, but not some overly expensive third zone rate.

    If we can reduce regular travel on the I-5 bridge there will be less need for a costly replacement and, hopefully, more attention to other needs. I firmly believe that federal budget considerations have reached the point where all US transportation strategies need to be carefully weighed, to get the most ‘bang for the buck.’

    It is difficult, in any cost/benefit analysis procedure, to identify all of the risks, advantages and disadvantages surrounding differing options. But that is what must be done. There is too much “sloppy scholarship” going on from all sides. Then, creative thinking needs to come in, i.e. discover good reasons why Vancouverites should not clog our I-5 bridge.

  15. “What about a one way toll on the bridge: ”

    I’m not sure it matters whether it is one way or which direction. Most of those who would pay it cross the river in both directions. You would have to toll both bridges or you would just displace traffic onto the one that isn’t tolled. Once you tolled the bridges for single occupancy vehicles the need for new capacity would recede into the distant future.

    As fof light rail. I think Vancouver wants light rail, the rest of Clark County is indifferent and neither apparently is willing to pay the operating costs muchless for construction. If we adopt a strategy to add auto capacity across the river to reduce congestion then I think it is unlikely they will ever be willing to do so.

    The biggest problem is that light rail is not commuter rail. It has been designed in Portland to connect dense urban areas rather than as a purely park and ride operation.

    If Clark County continues to grow with auto-dependent development then there are no urban areas to connect. That means, unlike Washington County, employers in Clark County are not going to be well-served by light rail. It will also be extremely difficult to build a dense transit system of any kind that can connect light rail to those jobs or justify the expense of a pedestrian network that is rarely used.

    Downtown Vancouver, the one dense urban area that really exists in Clark County, would like to be connected to Portland’s light rail system. But I don’t think we should see that as having much effect on the commuter habits of people from the rest of Clark County. Its more likely to improve access to jobs in downtown Vancouver for people on the Oregon side of the river.

    I also doubt that extending light rail across the river will change that dynamic and spur the creation of an extensive transit system of any kind in Clark County. That system will get created only when and if it is needed to serve Clark County transportation needs.

    Basically any new capacity for autos across the river is going to fuel auto-dependent development in Clark County. As long as we committ to maintaining an efficient auto-commute system we are not going to see meaningful transit alternatives. And that is not only on the Vancouver side. One reason Tri-met can’t provide high quality transit in the Columbia Corridor is the large number of employees who commute from auto-dependent Clark County.

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