The Biggest Bottleneck on the West Coast Is Handling Traffic at Double the Normal Rush-Hour Speeds

COVID-19 has shown what could happen if tolls were placed on Portland highways.

THE FUTURE LIBERALS WANT: During weekday rush hours, Interstate 5 now flows freely in North Portland. Some officials argue that’s a lesson for how to manage traffic after the pandemic recedes. (Henry Cromett)

The past month of pandemic has offered a glimpse of a world in which Portlanders drive less frequently.

In it, traffic jams disappear. Even at rush hour, cars flow freely where once were notorious snarls. But it's also a world in which local transportation agencies are out of money.

Joe Cortright was surprised by one result.

When the Portland economist checked real-time traffic numbers in early April, he did a double take. Rather than declining, he found the number of vehicles traveling northbound on Interstate 5 from the Rose Quarter to Vancouver, Wash., during the afternoon rush hours appeared to have increased.

And traffic figures, collected by Portland State University, showed vehicles were covering the 8-mile stretch—which transportation officials sometimes call the worst bottleneck on the West Coast—twice as fast as they did before the COVID-19 pandemic.

"It was startling to me," says Cortright, who has pored over traffic data for most of the past decade.

Make no mistake: Overall highway traffic is down about 40 percent from this time last year, according to the Oregon Department of Transportation. And that includes I-5.

But using Portal, PSU's traffic archive, Cortright found that during the afternoon rush hour, more vehicles are traveling the region's most notorious corridor—and doing it at more than twice the speed of a year ago.

(At deadline, ODOT disputed his findings, saying the agency's numbers show rush-hour traffic was actually down 15 percent. Chi Mai, an ODOT traffic analyst, explains that the Portal system relies on aging sensors, which can be inaccurate.

"Over the years the volume data has become less reliable," Mai says. "ODOT is continuing to work with PSU to fix the data quality and it's a recurring issue with new ones popping up.")

Before the pandemic, I-5 between Portland and Vancouver typically got jammed by 2 or 3 in the afternoon, slowing to 20 or 25 mph. "Once it hits that tipping point, it doesn't speed up again until rush hour is over," Cortright says.

Now, however, with so many drivers staying home, traffic remains well below the tipping point. That means the midafternoon slowdown never occurs and commuters can drive as fast as they want on their way home to Washington. More of them complete the trip during peak hours, because they no longer have to sit and wait.

Somehow, it's appropriate that today—the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, a landmark in the environmental movement—our air is cleaner than it's been in a long time.

That's mostly because COVID-19 is keeping vehicles off the roads: The 40 percent decrease in traffic from a year ago means vehicle-generated pollution is down about the same amount, according to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

"The emissions reductions we're seeing in Oregon and around the world are staggering," says state Rep. Karin Power (D-Milwaukie), a co-sponsor of the controversial carbon reduction bill stuck in Salem, "but it's not sustainable."

The pandemic has brought illness, death, job losses, and disruptions unparalleled in most of our lives. It has also displayed what could happen if some transportation advocates like Cortright got their way and tolls were placed on Portland highways steep enough to cut into rush-hour traffic.

To replicate such results in normal times would mean encouraging people to commute by other means and take nonessential trips during off hours. Cortright advocates congestion pricing to prompt such behavior.

When the state eventually reopens for business, many of the environmental benefits will be lost. But Cortright says he hopes policymakers pay close attention to what this unplanned experiment has shown us about traffic flows.

"The implication is clear," he says. "We could make the congestion problem go away, even when things get back to normal, by managing demand."

A drive-thru COVID-19 testing center next to Interstate 84. (Henry Cromett)

Fewer cars on the road eases traffic and improves air quality, but it has a downside: City and state transportation departments are dependent on gas taxes and road-user fees. Without vehicles rolling, the agencies run out of money.

Chris Smith, a longtime Portland transportation activist who's running for the Metro Council, says that should be a wake-up call.

"Funding transportation based on fossil fuel has always been problematic," Smith says. "At some point, we have to break the connection."

The cap-and-trade legislation Power and her legislative colleagues have been pushing in Salem would gradually raise the price of fossil fuels so high that motorists would be forced to switch to electric vehicles. A 2019 Legislative Revenue Office forecast showed the legislation would eliminate 99 percent of oil-powered vehicles by 2050.

That report also highlighted an unintended consequence: Federal and state gas tax revenues, which pay for most highway and street projects, would disappear.
Over the past month, ODOT and the Portland Bureau of Transportation have gotten an early taste of what a future without gas taxes could be like.

City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly says PBOT is losing about $3 million a month in state gas tax money (as well as $4 million in forgone parking and parking enforcement revenue).

As transportation commissioner, Eudaly has pushed to improve climate-friendly alternatives for Portlanders and earlier this year scored a big victory for the Rose Lane Project, a PBOT investment aimed at improving clogged intersections and providing more express lanes for buses.

PBOT would invest gas tax money to get people out of cars.

Now, that project faces uncertainty because of the hole in the agency's budget. "We're going to be making a lot of hard choices," Eudaly says. "Everything is on the table."

In 2019, Eudaly toured London and Stockholm, where charging drivers to enter the central city—congestion pricing—delivered traffic reductions nearly as large as the COVID-19 shutdown in Portland.

She came back from the trip (which was paid for by Michael Bloomberg's foundation) as a committed proponent of using a pricing mechanism to reduce congestion and improve air quality. But she thinks transit improvements must come first and has convened an equitable mobility task force to examine how to implement congestion pricing without penalizing low-income commuters.

Eudaly reviewed Cortright's findings on COVID-19's traffic effects at WW's request. "What I can comfortably say is that [Cortright's] chart shows we could manage our existing roadways much better than we do now," Eudaly says. "Our real issue isn't capacity, it's how we manage demand."

How ODOT handles congestion is a contentious issue. Earlier this month, despite opposition from critics, including Cortright and Smith, the Oregon

Transportation Commission voted to move forward with a project to widen I-5 at the Rose Quarter in an effort to reduce congestion and speed the rush-hour commute.

ODOT is proceeding with tolling and congestion pricing studies in parallel with the I-5 expansion, but Brendan Finn, the agency's urban mobility director, says gaining the necessary federal approval to toll local freeways would be a slow process.

"Tolling/congestion pricing on I-5 and I-205 remains years away," Finn says.
Smith acknowledges that convincing the public and policymakers that drivers should pay a toll for something they perceive is currently free—space on the highway—is challenging, but other cities' examples show it's possible.

"If you look at polling on congestion pricing in London and Stockholm," Smith says, "it shows people hate it until they try it."

Cortright says the takeaway from the COVID-19 shutdown is that demand management would save drivers time—and therefore money—and is a more efficient way to reduce congestion than building more lanes.

"Highways are an incredibly important, expensive asset that work better when you manage them," he says. "If you were running a restaurant, you wouldn't just throw a bunch of raw steaks on the table and open the door. But that's what we're doing with I-5."

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