PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Thanks to low gas prices, low unemployment and thousands of new residents, traffic around Portland is as bad as it’s ever been.
The city saw the worst of it this winter when only a few inches of snow shut down highways for hours. But these days, drivers are seeing long backups even without bad weather.
The stretch of I-84 just west of 33rd Avenue is the busiest in Oregon. It’s now seeing more than 177,000 vehicles per day.
The American Transportation Research Institute says I-5 bottlenecks at I-84 and the Interstate Bridge are among the worst in the country.
On U.S. 26 at Cornelius Pass, traffic is close to double what it was 20 years ago. That stretch will hopefully see some relief soon, with a widening project getting under way this month.
Oregon Department of Transportation spokesman Don Hamilton said it’s one of about 24 projects the department is taking on in 2017.
Dr. Ian Carlton with ECONorthwest, who has a PhD in city and regional planning, said to reduce traffic permanently in this economy, the cost of driving would have to be raised by something like charging for every parking space.
Carlton says widening the highways is a temporary fix, but it won’t last.
“The minute that you free up some space on the interstate there will be someone sitting at home that says, ‘Eh, there was that trip that I wanted to take but I didn’t, because the roads were full,'” Carlton said. “And now they’ll take that trip.”
“Given the limited resources, I’d say they’ve been doing the best they can,” said Dr. Jennifer Dill with PSU, who also has a PhD in city and regional planning.
Dill said Oregon can only do so much with its roads because projects to improve or expand are expensive, and Oregonians typically aren’t willing to chip in much money to pay for them.
“Compared to other states, we are one of the least willing places to pay for improving our transportation system,” she said.
Sen. Rod Monroe, D-Portland, knows that as well as anyone.
“Any time you put a tax measure on the ballot, it almost always fails,” Monroe said.
But as a member of every major transportation committee in Oregon, he said Portland traffic is at a crisis-level that’s affecting the entire state, and it has to be fixed.
“It’ll require a lot of new taxes and fees to fix the transportation problems in this state. We really need to raise about a billion dollars to do that,” he said.
Roughly $700 million would go to roads, highways and bridges. The remaining 30% would go toward public transit.
Of course Oregon is already facing a $1.8 billion deficit. That will likely mean raised taxes.
That’s why Monroe said a transportation spending bill is going to require bipartisan agreement and support from special interest groups like the union for truck drivers and The American Automobile Association.
If it’s left for voters to decide if they’ll pay for it, the measure will never get through, he said.