The Western Arterial: Makes Sense!


by Ron Swaren

Gridlock on the Interstate 5 (and I-205) highway through Portland continues at epidemic levels. I was out there on three afternoons last week and noticed it seemed to start earlier now, too. As early as 1 pm for the afternoon rush. A huge portion of the traffic is freight trucks—-and a sure indicator of economic recovery is the movement of freight.

But one overriding economic factor is Washington County growth. With recent announcements by big employers the growth–and the traffic–will continue. This does translate into more tax revenue for the state of Oregon, but with no equivalent of the I-205 highway on the west side of Portland, commuters from SW Washington will continue to be stalled. And freight shipments will also be stalled and wasting time and money.

A clone of the I-205 on the West side would be astronomical in cost and, likely, politically impossible as well. Last summer the Clark Co. Commissioners floated the idea of a Columbia River bridge crossing in the vicinity of 192nd Ave from Vancouver. This is about a 10,000 foot jump—and also would go through Government Island Oregon State Park. Recently they have had some discussion with Troutdale officials, regarding a Camas-Troutdale crossing.  This would be a fairly short crossing, although the benefit would be limited until the inevitable expansion fills in the Gresham-Fairview-Wood Village area.  However, I think Washougal and Camas could both benefit by an express bus service to CTran’s 164th Transit Center and to Vancouver.

A solution that would be very intermediate in cost and scope—and could offer incentives to environmentally conscious Oregonians–is the Western Arterial Highway. My vision of it is built on mostly existing rights of way and connecting from the West Union Junction on US 26 all the way to the NE 39th Street, Hwy 500 and I-5 junction in Vancouver. There are some obvious hurdles—-such as going underneath NW Skyline Blvd. for a distance. And getting across three bodies of water. But therein lies the advantage from an environmental standpoint.

The flow on the Columbia River is fairly predictable. In other parts of the US and Canada, there is experimentation with underwater electrical turbines. Some use tidal currents, and some use river currents. A long span bridge—to get across commercial navigation channels—would require fewer, but larger, piers. Why not design such piers with underwater turbines installed right into them and use the power for charging hybrid or all electric buses and for bridge lighting? Both the main channel of the Columbia and the Portland Harbor area have strong currents. Both C TRAN and Tri Met could easily sustain a small fleet of electric buses serving suburban express routes.

This short interior route could link areas that will experience future growth—-downtown Vancouver, Rivergate area, Linnton and the Silicon Forest—with a series of modest sized, bicyclable shortcuts. Presently the overall distance from Vancouver to the West Union Junction in the heart of the Silicon Forest is 20 miles. My calculation for this by the Western Arterial route is 14 miles, and made up of short segments. This is a project that is financially achievable and would return traffic on I-5 to tolerable levels. I think an east county bridge will be needed, but building the Western Arterial route would give us time for a more informed discussion on that project. METRO should open an online discussion of the Western Arterial route—which has generally received favorable comments when the public hears about it. Right now there is an enormous waste of resources due to gridlock on I-5.

I am supportive of both public transit and cycling.  In my testimony to agencies–including METRO and its various citizen advisory committees, Tri Met and to SW Washington RTC, I point out that the earth shaking technological advancement is going to occur in road vehicles. Not light rail. Light rail is now confined to the same pattern of tracks and overhead powered vehicles, so that new lines interchange with existing ones.  In road vehicles the whole thing can be redesigned. Both electric motive power and rechargeable battery technology is rapidly advancing. And nano, alloy and synthetic materials will make undercarriages lighter and simpler.  In Canada, Quebec’s version of the BPA, is even manufacturing a newly designed electric motor for larger vehicles that can replace both a heavy diesel engine and transmission at the same time.

Ron is a resident of the Portland area, has been involved in transportation issues and participates in the UN World Urban Forum. As a commercial journeyman carpenter he has built some of the major structures in the Portland area and believes that costs on public works need to be dramatically reduced.