And Another Perspective on the Congestion Study

I start to pen this piece on PBA/Metro/Port’s “Cost of Congestion” with exhaust fumes in my nose after walking past two Port of Portland landscape crewman blowing leaves off the freshly cut grass at McCarthy Park…perhaps a symptom of the Port’s disconnect from reality in this age of Peak Oil and global warming.

But where was I…As I entered the packed Metro Council chambers to hear from the “business community” on our transportation “crisis,” I wondered why JPACT (Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation) and not JPACE?…Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Education…if we are really concerned about the future of our economy.

Before you read further, switch over to Sam Adam’s blog and read Chris Coleman’s piece on “Creativity: The Fuel in our Engine” He cites the work of Joe Cortright among others, and I will defer to them on the analysis of the numbers in “The Cost of Congestion to the Economy of the Portland Region. But after 30 years in the printing and paper industry and six running the Swan Island TMA, I am convinced that “Talent,” and that means education, is where its at.

Here are a few data points. I have not seen a ship at Terminal 2 in weeks, if not months; Terminal 6 is down to 1 ship a week; ship repair is just hanging on here on Swan Island…the competition both north and south does not have 90 miles of river to contend with. Portland is here, no doubt, because in the days of river navigation, it was the sweet spot. With less than 1% of the West Coast container traffic…and that number is going down, not up…its long past time for us to re-think our regional transportation strengths and weaknesses.

True, Portland exports a lot of wheat and minerals, imports a lot of automobiles…almost all of which come and go by rail and/or barge, but my guess is many of those container unit trains are just turning right as they come out of the Gorge and heading for Tacoma. The Port’s motto…”Possibility. In every direction” reflects its apparent unwillingness or inability to focus on core competencies while it pursues pointless dreams of big league status in the West Coast Ports league.

Meanwhile at adidasAmerica’s North American HQ, 900 designers, marketers, product managers and assorted others are making good money but not manufacturing or shipping a single shoe! Even Freightliner has more engineers in Portland than truck builders. Without talented and innovative engineers and skilled operators who can add value, we won’t have to worry about transportation because there won’t be anything to ship.

But OK, let’s accept that our future will have a lot of trucks and that moving freight will be important; two things jumped out at me from the study. First, Swan Island’s Going Street and Rivergate’s Columbia Blvd. are missing from the list of congested roadways (see Figure 4-1, p. 32)…the two busiest arterials serving the primary industrial, shipping districts of the region. Note that SH43 (#11) to Lake Oswego & West Linn is on the list…a key freight route for sure!

Second, note just above the map that trucks currently make up just 1.5% of all vehicle trips and about 5% of vehicle miles traveled (Table 4-1). Take that into account before you hyper-ventilate at the numbers on p34…that truck vehicle miles of travel will more than double. Its an increase from “not much” to “not a lot more.”

So the key point is that the congestion we do experience, primarily in the peak hours, is due to folks driving their private autos to work. Many do this because they have no option…there is no MAX to Clark county, not even an arterial bridge. And one of the reasons N. Going Street and N. Columbia Blvd work well now and will into the future is that they suffer from no through commuter traffic (not to mention the hard work of the Swan Island TMA in expanding transportation options.)

A lot of area residents…who are not mindless water molecules…have figured our their own solution to congestion and long commutes…live closer to where you work. Take a look at Metro’s Rideshare study, done by UrbanTrans; according to 2000 census data, people tend to live close to their worksites.

So, if you do want to put your money on “reducing congestion” as the key to our economic future, why not continue to pursue even more vigorously the proven strategies that have been the foundation of the region’s transportation strategy for 30 years…providing transportation options (MAX, Frequent Bus, a completed bike network, etc) and then marketing the hell out of it. TravelSmart in the Interstate Corridor reduced drive alone auto-trips by 9%. Then take all the money we save, and put it into education…pre K through post Doc!

It is a curiosity to me that when the private sector comes to the public trough, they forget the keys to their own business survival…low cost solutions, efficiency, and innovation.

P.S. But why do I harbor suspicion that this study is just another salvo in the public relations war for more roads? Take a look at the one funded project that nearly everyone in the room at JPACT, who are wringing their hands about freight movement, supports …widening I-5 at the Slough Bridge. This $50 Million plus project will remove the add-lane from Columbia Blvd southbound and will shift congestion south into the heart of North Portland, restricting freeway access from Columbia Blvd, Going Street and Greeley Avenues, the main arterials serving the region’s industrial heart. Great for commuters from Clark county, but better for “Freight,” my foot.

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