Officials: At or near record levels, vehicle counts likely to keep rising
By Eric Florip, April 7, 2015, The Columbian
Last fall, a state forecast turned heads by predicting a steady decline in traffic volumes on Washington roads in the next three decades.
It was a complete about-face from even a year earlier, when the Washington State Department of Transportation projected sustained growth in traffic for at least 30 years. Some observers saw the shift as an important milestone that could change the way the state plans for its future transportation needs.
In Clark County, the forecast looks very different. Vehicle counts on both the Interstate 5 and Interstate 205 bridges are at record or near-record levels — and they’re “absolutely” expected to keep rising as the county keeps growing, said Matt Ransom, executive director of the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council.
“It’s a function of just population growth and business activity,” Ransom said.
Those numbers are tracked by the Oregon Department of Transportation, and watched closely by RTC and other agencies each year. They tell a different story than the perception many people have of declining traffic volumes, said Vancouver City Councilor Jack Burkman, who also sits on the RTC board.
While the traffic volumes on both major spans are both on the rise, the trend lines don’t always mirror each other. The I-5 Bridge carries about the same number of weekday crossings as it did 10 years ago, at slightly more than 132,000 per day. I-205, meanwhile, tops 150,000 daily crossings during the week on average, comfortably surpassing its pre-recession peak.
Vehicle counts on both bridges took a hit when the local economy cratered. On I-5, traffic started declining in 2006, even before the recession began. I-205 was slower to dip, and it’s bounced back faster, according to the data.
It’s difficult to pinpoint a reason for that, but a couple of factors could help explain the difference, Ransom said. For one, the I-5 corridor is already at capacity and chronically congested, giving it less room to grow. I-205 has more capacity, and the east side of the county has seen more growth and development recently, he said.
Despite its challenges, I-5 continues to see its traffic volumes climb.
“There’s a belief that the issues on I-5 are overblown because it will be taken care of with people just not using it as much,” Burkman said. That notion just isn’t true, he said.
Traffic counts on I-5 came under particular scrutiny during the debate over the failed Columbia River Crossing project. The proposed I-5 Bridge replacement’s finance plan initially relied on traffic projections that were found to be overinflated and unrealistic. Even as traffic volumes dropped on I-5, the project continued to use outdated numbers as the basis for its expected toll revenues.
The state’s official forecast for declining volumes does not appear to match what planners expect in this region, Ransom said. Sitting on a state boundary also makes Clark County’s patterns look different from many other parts of Washington, Burkman said.
The RTC board may facilitate a discussion on local and state trends and why they may differ, Ransom said. Often, there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye, he added.
“You have to overlay a lot of factors,” Ransom said.