ODOT Mega-projects in the Portland area

The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) has a mega-project wishlist. The top projects on this list are the Abernethy Bridge on I-205, and the Boone Bridge, the Rose Quarter, and the Columbia River Crossing on I-5.  These projects have been waiting for funding for years or even decades. A total price tag for Oregon of at least four billion dollars seems likely, and for that, we’ll receive a few short segments of highways with more lanes. 

ODOT says these projects will increase safety and reduce traffic congestion in the Portland region. However, they will not meaningfully achieve these goals. If we really wanted to address safety and congestion in the region, we would spend four billion dollars in a very different way.

A real increase in safety would mean that fewer people would be harmed by the transportation system. ODOT, however, is measuring safety only by the number of crashes that damage vehicles on those narrow stretches of road. Instead, they should measure the safety of people — both on the road and in the surrounding community — who are most threatened by the expansion of multilane highways. If the goal is to reduce serious injuries and deaths on the road in the Portland metro region, there are much better ways to spend $4 billion, such as improving pedestrian safety on ODOT-owned roads that travel through residential and commercial areas, like the Tualatin Valley Highway. Every city in Oregon has a list of safety projects they’d like to see on ODOT-owned roads, but instead, ODOT continues to focus on protecting vehicles rather than people.

Widening roads doesn’t reduce congestion. When more lanes are added to a road or highway  (even just “auxiliary lanes” as proposed in these projects) more people choose to use that road, which increases the total amount of driving, and traffic, over time. Because driving is easier on a newly widened road right after construction is finished, people flock to it and immediately recreate the very traffic that the wider road was intended to solve. Real solutions to traffic require investments that encourage people to consider driving at a different time, taking the bus, or walking or biking to a closer destination. It encourages decisions that affect their long-term transportation patterns, like choosing to move closer to their job or to a frequent transit line.

Every investment in a wider freeway, in the long term, creates a bigger traffic bottleneck like those we already see.  This has been demonstrated over and over again – when you make it easier to drive, you get more driving. A widened road fills right up again, and drivers find themselves stuck in the same congestion, but on a bigger road with more vehicles. If the true goal is to reduce congestion, to make driving times faster and more reliable, we must work to reduce the number of vehicles on the road, not build more roads. When there are high-quality choices for transit, biking, or walking, then more people will choose those options, taking cars off the road and reducing traffic congestion.

These projects will be enormously expensive. They will be funded at least in part by bonds that require repayment off the top of ODOT’s bank account, which means less money for everything else. The Portland Metro region could do this entirely differently – jurisdictions and transit providers could come together and identify the top priorities for a transportation system that allows more people to access more opportunities to thrive while reducing climate impacts, air pollution, and human injuries and deaths. This money could be spent to catch up on the maintenance backlog repairing bridges and improving community resilience. It could be spent on building trails, bike highways, safe crossings for pedestrians, dedicated lanes for buses.  These investments would also pay off in making driving easier, safer, and more pleasant, with more predictable travel times, by moving more people and goods in fewer vehicles. With four billion dollars, this region could do amazing things. 

OEC carries this vision as it advocates at the state and regional level for a different approach to transportation. This is somewhat unusual for an environmental organization, but we know that reforming the transportation system is key to achieving the climate and equity outcomes to which we are dedicated. We just need to change our priorities. Do we want to live in a world that prioritizes cars, or a world that prioritizes people? We have some important choices ahead of us in the Portland Metro region. 

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