More induced travel denial

Highway advocates deny or minimize the science of induced travel

Induced travel is a well established scientific fact:  any increase in roadway capacity in a metropolitan area is likely to produce a proportional increase in vehicle miles traveled

Highway advocates like to pretend that more capacity improves mobility, but at best this is a short lived illusion.  More mobility generates more travel, sprawl and costs

In theory, highway planners could accurately model induced travel; but the fact is they ignore, deny or systematically under-estimate induced travel effects.  Models are wielded as proprietary and technocratic weapons to sell highway expansions.

Induced travel, or as its otherwise known, the fundamental law of road congestion, is a particularly inconvenient fact for highway boosters.  A growing body of evidence confirms what has been observed for decades:  adding more un-priced roadway capacity in urban settings simply generates more and longer trips, and does nothing to eliminate congestion.  Day by day, the popular media are starting to communicate this seemingly counter-intuitive fact to the public.

Highway boosters either simply ignore the entire concept of induced demand, or pretend that it doesn’t exist.  A new chapter in this effort to avoid this inconvenient fact comes from  Arizona State University Professor Steven Polzin, writing at Planetizen.

Polzin isn’t a complete induced travel denier; he’s more an induced travel apologist and minimizer.  It may be a real thing—or might have been in the past, he assures us—but it’s not a big deal and is now adequately being thought about by state highway departments and can safely be ignored.

Induced travel is scientific fact

Polzin derides induced demand as “a popular concept among urbanists” and argues that it’s given too much publicity in the media, by the likes of the New York Times.

But induced travel is not simply a “popular concept,” it’s a well researched scientific fact.  The best available evidence from a series of studies, shows that there’s essentially a unit elasticity of travel with respect to the provision of additional highway capacity.  A whole series of studies supports this estimate, some of which are shown here.

Duranton, Gilles, and Matthew A. Turner. 2011. “The Fundamental Law of Road Congestion: Evidence from US Cities.” American Economic Review, 101 (6): 2616-52.

Hymel, Kent, 2019. “If you build it, they will drive: Measuring induced demand for vehicle travel in urban areas,” Transport Policy, Elsevier, vol. 76(C), pages 57-66.

Hsu, Wen-Tai & Zhang, Hongliang, 2014. “The fundamental law of highway congestion revisited: Evidence from national expressways in Japan,” Journal of Urban Economics, Elsevier, vol. 81(C), pages 65-76.

Miquel-Àngel Garcia-López, Ilias Pasidis, Elisabet Viladecans-Marsal, Congestion in highways when tolls and railroads matter: evidence from European cities, Journal of Economic Geography, Volume 22, Issue 5, September 2022, Pages 931–960,

It’s odd that Polzin, a university professor, provides only a list of popular media articles (which he disbelieves) and provides not  not a single footnote or reference to a peer-reviewed academic study to dispute the notion of induced travel.

Purported mobility gains are an illusion

Sure there may be some induced travel, Polzin argues, but don’t overlook the benefits of greater mobility.  This misses the point that mobility (i.e. driving more and further) is evidence of induced travel, not a refutation.  And mobility tends to be short-lived and costly. Our friend and colleague, Todd Litman of the Victoria Transportation Policy Institute has a compelling rebuttal to Polzin on this point at Planetizen.

Polzin pleads with us to recognize the “mobility” benefits that come from increased highway capacity.  He misses two things here:  first, the key insight from the research on induced travel is that the mobility gains are at best a temporary illusion.  Somewhat faster moving traffic prompts more trip taking and longer trips, which quickly erodes any mobility gains.  And greater mobility simply prompts greater decentralization and sprawl, so even in places where traffic moves faster, everyone has to travel farther—and that comes at a real social, environmental and economic cost.

In effect, Polzin says that traffic growth is just due to population growth, and is inevitable, and good.  But he completely ignores the clear cross-sectional evidence from US metropolitan areas:  Metro areas with fewer lane miles of roads have shorter travel distances.  And far from being economically constrained, metro areas with less roadway capacity sprawl less, reducing public sector infrastructure costs, and creating a “green dividend” for their residents, who don’t have to drive as far.  The average resident of Portland drives about half as far every day as the average resident of Houston.  And, as we’ve documented at City Observatory, people who live in cities where people drive less are happier with their transportation systems.

Predict and provide = Prevaricate and pave

For decades, state highway departments have used their control over opaque and technocratic travel demand models to build a case for ever more highway capacity. Their “predict and provide” approach is the bureaucratic manifestation of induced travel.  Polzin never quite acknowledges this history, but instead suggests that we should simply trust highway planners to build new  traffic models that account for induced demand.

Much of the reporting on induced demand gives the impression that the transportation planning community is oblivious to this phenomenon or is comprised of road-building zealots. Newer activity-based transportation models are designed such that activity generation (trip generation) is sensitive to travel times. Consequently, improvements in travel speed will contribute to predictions of increased trip-making and travel distance. Even without the newest models, scenario testing and careful analysis of changes in demographics, mode choices, and flow volumes and patterns can give insight into the nature of demand on new facilities.

In theory, state highway departments could build models that accurately reflect induced travel.  But the simple fact is that they don’t.  To the contrary, a recent published article on the practice of state highway travel forecasting looked at this specific issue, and found just the opposite:  Induced travel effects are routinely ignored by state highway departments, and induced travel is generally introduced into highway environmental assessments only at the behest of public critics.  Those few state highway efforts that do consider induced demand, wildly understate likely effects.  Highway departments continue to produce models that exaggerate future travel demand growth even in the face of demonstrable capacity constraints, as Norm Marshall puts it “forecasting the impossible.”  And some, like Oregon, simply deny that induced travel is real, and prohibit their modelers from using scientifically based tools that estimate induced travel.

In a similar vein, Polzin solemnly intones that future transportation projects ought to be based on sound projections of future.

Roadway investments in new capacity should be based on up-to-date and sound demand estimates. They can’t just fulfill out-of-date plans or serve as ill-advised opportunities to create jobs or garner state and federal resources for local use. They should not use twentieth-century per capita travel growth rates or chamber of commerce-inspired population growth assumption

But there’s precious little evidence that state highway departments do anything of the sort.  They routinely plan for highway capacity expansions on roads where traffic is declining.  The Oregon Department of Transportation proposes expanding capacity at the Rose Quarter at a cost of $1.45 billion, even though traffic levels on that particular roadway have been declining for 25 years.  Cincinnati’s Brent Spence Bridge is slated for a massive $3.5 billion expansion, even though its traffic has been flat for more than a decade.  And other state highway departments routinely produce “hockey stick” traffic forecasts that are simply never realized.

The underlying problem that highway advocates fail to acknowledge is that road users will typically only use added highway capacity only if they don’t have to pay for it.    In the very limited instances in which drivers are asked to pay for even a fraction of the cost of providing increased road capacity, demand disappears.  The evidence from tolled roadways like Louisville’s I-65 bridge is that most people are unwilling to pay even a small fraction of the cost of freeway widening projects that would save them travel time.  That shows that the only reason people drive on expanded roadways is that someone else pays for them.  That’s pretty much the definition of induced travel.

Polzin’s piece is subtitled: “Induced demand is a popular concept among urbanists, but does its pervasiveness obscure the true costs of mobility?” This is a classic example of Betteridge’s law of headlines, the adage that states: “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.”  Induces travel is real, and at this point, only highway advocates, and their apologists, like Polzin, are in any doubt about what this means.

IBR floats new bridge design, proving critics right

For four years, the Oregon and Washington highway departments have been pushing a revival of the failed multi-billion dollar I-5 Columbia River Crossing.  Their key sales pitch is that the size and design of the project can’t vary in any meaningful way from the project’s decade-old record of decision, for fear of delaying construction or losing federal funding.

Months after choosing a “locally preferred alternative” and after years of warning people that moving away from the 2011 design of the CRC would cause enormous delays, IBR is moving to resurrect a bridge design it ruled out more than a decade ago.

A single level crossing would be significantly wider than the current proposal for a pair of double-decker bridges.  Instead, the project would consist of two or three side-by-side, single level bridges, carrying multiple lanes of traffic, light rail trains, bikes and pedestrians all one one level.

The single level crossing would dramatically increase the I-5 footprint, particularly where it crosses the shoreline into downtown Vancouver.

The sudden decision to revive this long-discarded alternative clearly vindicates criticisms raised by independent engineers that the proposed double-decker bridge is too steep; the single level design enables a lower bridge grade.  It also shows that the highway department’s claims that the project’s design can’t be changed are simply false.

IBR Suddenly Announces a New Bridge Design

On February 9, 2023 IBR Administrator Greg Johnson off-handedly slipped this little gem into a routine briefing for the project’s community advisory group.

He told them:  “We’re looking at a bridge configuration of a single level.”

And Johnson immediately interjected, “that is something that is not new.”

He went on to explain that this gives them added choices for “bridge types and bridge aesthetics.”

Here’s the full quote, and following it a link to the meeting video:

Right now we are on target, we’re on task. And the team is driving forward with technical reports that will go out to the cooperating agencies and partners. We’re also working on within the supplemental we’re working on different technical aspects to make sure that we are covering potential design elements. We are looking at a bridge configuration of a single level. So that is something that is not new, but it is something that we wanted to make sure within the draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement so folks can see the potential impacts of, of what having all of the modes on one level rather than having transit underneath the lane and having the Bike Ped underneath the lane, we have an option that shows them all at one level. So once again, it’s something that we’re studying the impacts of and we will have those two bridge configurations going forward. We know that one level gives us some some some interesting options as far as bridge types and bridge aesthetics that we don’t get with having transit underneath and having Bike-Ped underneath. So we will be looking at that and you will be seeing at an upcoming meeting some renderings that display these potential configurations.


Far from being a minor change, this represents the revival of an alternative design that was ruled out more than a decade ago.  It also shows that the IBR project is effectively conceding that its critics, who’ve alleged that its double-decker “modified locally preferred alternative” has a serious safety and cost problem due to its excessive grade and elevated off-ramps.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it shows that warnings that major changes couldn’t be made to the project out of a fear of delays were simply baseless manipulation.

Resurrecting a discarded 15-year old alternative

As we mentioned, IBR administrator Greg Johnson made a point of claiming that the single level design isn’t “new.”  It isn’t, it’s quite old, and to have listened to the Oregon and Washington transportation departments, it’s so old that it’s been dead and buried for almost 15 years.

The last official ODOT and WSDOT document featuring a single level crossing design was the 2008 Draft Environmental Impact Statement.  It proposed two possible designs for replacement bridges for the current I-5, a pair of side-by-side double-decker bridges (which were chosen as the preferred design), and a trio of single level bridges, as shown here.


The project’s Final Environmental Impact Statement, issued in 2011, abandoned the single level option, and chose to proceed only with a pair of double-decker bridges (with transit and bike-ped access placed on the lower level of each structure).


The Final Environmental Impact Statement made a strong series of findings rejecting the single level three-bridge design, because it would have more in-river impacts, a larger surface area with more runoff, and would have larger visual impact.  [CRC FEIS, Page 2-83]

The single-level design is considerably wider than the two-bridge double-decker design, as shown in this 2007 rendering prepared by IBR.

it’s back. An even wider bridge across the Columbia.

Apparently we can reconsider the design of the crossing, even at this late date.  Ever since he took the job of IBR administrator more than three years ago, Greg Johnson has been warning elected officials not to make any significant changes to the project design included in the 2011 FEIS for fear of delaying it further.  An immersed tunnel?  More consideration for climate?  A lift-span?  A narrower freeway?  None of these can even be studied, or advanced into the environmental review process, for fear that it will cause some additional delay.

But now, more than six months after theoretically getting buy-off from all of the project’s eight partners for this untouchable design, and spending tens of millions of dollars defining the “modified locally preferred alternative,” Johnson has suddenly decided that he can unilaterally inject back into the discussion an alternative that the project ruled out more than a decade ago.

And make no mistake, changing from double-decker bridges to a single level crossing has significant impacts.  It almost certainly means more piers in the Columbia River, and more real estate disruption, particularly on the steadily redeveloping Vancouver waterfront.

A bridge too steep

While Johnson claims that the single level design is allows some more aesthetic options, that’s simply misdirection.  The real reason that IBR is changing its design at this extremely late date is that it has suddenly realized that one of its most persistent critics was right, all along.  For years, engineer Bob Ortblad—who advocates for an immersed tube tunnel crossing—has been pointing out that the proposed IBR bridge design has a dangerously steep grade (nearly 4 percent).  This would make it one of the steepest interstate highway bridges in the country.  Just to hammer the point home:  the Biden Administration just approved a grant of $150 million toward the reconstruction of the I-10 bridge in Louisiana, currently the steepest interstate, to reduce the grade of the bridge to improve safety.  It’s also worth noting that the current IBR bridge design violates ODOT’s own standards for interstate highway bridge grades, and would require a design exception.  In addition to the safety hazard caused by the bridge grade, the extreme elevation of the roadway requires very steep on- and off-ramps, especially those connecting the bridge with Washington State Route 14, which runs very near the riverbank.   Those ramps would have even steeper and more dangerous grades than the bridge itself, a point Ortblad has made graphically:

Proposed IBR would have 4% mainline grades and 6-7% ramp grades (B. Ortblad)

What Johnson didn’t say—and what’s plainly the real reason for a single level crossing—is that it enables the engineers to lower the roadway by as much as 30 and 35 feet, consequently reducing the overall grade, and importantly, lowering the height of on- and off-ramps at either end of the bridge crossing.  The current LPA design calls for a minimum river clearance of 116 feet for the bottom level of each double-decker bridge.  The roadway would be on top of the double-decker, about 30-35 feet higher.  A single level design could lower the maximum height of the bridge by about 30-35 feet, enabling a lower grade.

Of course, the last thing IBR officials want to do is concede that Ortblad was right—that would damage their disinformation campaign about the merits of the immersed tube tunnel.  Instead, they’re suddenly concerned about bridge type and aesthetics.

Why now? 

The problems with the bridge grade were first identified more than a decade ago, when the Coast Guard objections let ODOT and WSDOT to hastily redesign the Columbia River Crossing to provide a 116-foot navigation clearance (21 feet higher than what the two highway agencies were planning).  ODOT and WSDOT never resolved the questions that were raised about the project’s excessive grade, particularly concerns that steep bridge grades would cause large trucks to slow and impede traffic flow.  Following Johnson’s insistent demand that no changes be made to the project defined in the Columbia River Crossing FEIS, IBR has stuck to the steep, double-deck design, never questioning the grade.

But in the past two months, IBR has had to produce a new cost estimate.  Embarrassingly, the cost of the IBR project has ballooned by 54 percent to nearly $7.5 billion.  To deflect criticism about higher costs, IBR officials testified in December that the project was also subjected to a “Cost Estimate Validation Process,” or CEVP, which the state DOTs advertised as a sure-fire cure for future cost escalation.  As we pointed out at City Observatory, no documentation exists for that claimed CEVP.  The Washington Department of Transportation responded to a public records request for copies of the CEVP by saying “no documents exist.”  Because the agencies have shrouded this process in secrecy we can’t say for sure, but it seems likely that a CEVP meeting likely identified the bridge grade, and expense of elevated interchanges as major cost, schedule and design risks to the project.  That would explain why, more than six months after locking down a double-decker “modified locally preferred alternative,” that Johnson and the IBR team are suddenly reviving the discarded single level bridge plan.

It’s not too late to make fundamental changes to the plan

Greg Johnson has cried “wolf” about making serious changes to the IBR project, even as its budget has ballooned by 54 percent in a little over two years, to a total price tag of as much as $7.5 billion.  But this latest—and very late—change to the project design is an indication that it’s not too late to fix the fatal flaws in this project.  Right now the fatal flaws revolve around its bloated design and price.  The reason the project is so expensive has little to do with the bridge structure itself, but rather the extravagant plans of ODOT and WSDOT to widen I-5 for miles on either side of the Columbia River, and rebuild, at much greater expense than the bridge itself, seven different freeway interchanges.  If this were simply a bridge replacement—as its name claims—the project would be vastly simpler, less expensive, and likely not controversial.

IBR’s Stacked Highway Bridge Alternative (2021)

For reference, we’re providing details of the alternative designs that have been considered by the IBR in the past decade.  As noted above, the last time any of the project’s documents mentioned a single level crossing was in the 2008 Draft Environmental Impact Statement.  Most recently, in October 2021, when it last listed the alternative bridge designs it was studying, IBR made absolutely no mention of a “single-level bridge”.  In fact, the only alternative design they showed was pretty much the opposite:  a larger stacked highway bridge, with highway lanes on the upper and lower levels of the double-decker bridge, and with transit and bike-pedestrian routes cantilevered on the sides of the lower level of the double decker.

Nothing but double deckers in 2011 in the Bridge Review Panel Report of 2011

In 2010, an expert review panel appointed by Governor’s Kulongoski and Gregoire found that the proposed “open-web” design being pushed by ODOT and WSDOT was “unbuildable.”  That led to the appointment of a “Bridge Review Panel” to quickly come up with a new alternative.  They recommended three possible alternatives in their 2011 report:  the composite truss design (which became the locally preferred alternative), and two other designs:  a cable stayed bridge and a tied arch bridge.  All three designs shared a common feature:  they were double-deckers with the transit component on a lower level of the bridge.  The cable stayed and tied arch designs had elevated bike-pedestrian paths in the center of the bridge, between the north and south bound highway lanes.

Here’s the Bridge Review Panel’s illustration of the cable stayed bridge.  The two dotted outlines in the center of the bridge structure on the cross-section illustration are the profile for the light rail transit.

Here’s the Bridge Review Panel’s illustration of the tied arch bridge.  Again, the two dotted outlines in the center of the bridge structure on the cross-section illustration are the profile for the light rail transit.




CEVP: Non-existent cost controls for the $7.5 billion IBR project

Oregon DOT has a history of enormous cost overruns, and just told the Oregon and Washington Legislatures that the cost of the I-5 Bridge Replacement Program (IBR) had ballooned 54 percent, to as much as $7.5 billion.

To allay fears of poor management and further cost overruns, IBR officials testified they had completed a “Cost Estimate Validation Process” (CEVP).  They assured legislators they had consulted independent subject matter experts and assessed more than 100 risks.

But asked for copies of the CEVP under the public records law, agency officials reported “no records exist” of the CEVP.

And the supposedly “nationally recognized” CEVP process has been around for more than a decade, was judged inadequate and error-filled for the Columbia River Crossing, and failed to detect key cost and schedule risks.

ODOT and WSDOT are more interested in deflecting criticism than in being accountable for—and correcting—runaway project costs.


IBR, December 2022 Legislative Testimony:  “A CEVP was recently completed.”

IBR, January 2023 response to public records request for the CEVP:  “No records exist.”


The Oregon and Washington highway departments are pushing forward with something they call the “Interstate Bridge Replacement Project.”  As we’ve pointed out at City Observatory, this project, which is actually a clone of the Columbia River Crossing that died a decade ago, is really a 5 mile long freeway widening project.  And its one whose cost has ballooned to as much as $7.5 billion, according to estimates revealed in December 2022. This is part of a consistent pattern, the Oregon Department of Transportation has a long string of 100 percent cost-overruns on its major projects.  Almost every large project the agency has undertaken in the past 20 years has ended up costing at least double—and sometimes triple—ts original cost estimate.

While the agency wants to blame recent construction cost inflation for the increase, that’s simply wrong.  The transportation agencies official projections of future construction price inflation show a negligible change from 2020 levels. Higher construction cost inflation accounts for only $300 million of a $2.7 billion cost increase over their 2020 estimate.

Don’t Worry About Cost Overruns, We did a CEVP™!

At the December 12, 2022 meeting of the Joint Oregon-Washington I-5 bridge legislative oversight committee, IBR administrators tried to buffer concerns about rising project costs by invoking a Cost Estimate Validation Process  or “CEVP “process as a way to diagnose and prevent further cost escalation.

IBR administrator Frank Green testified:

Its a process that enables us to identify costs . . .we also go through a process where we bring subject matter experts to identify, on a program like this, what are some of the potential risks that we may encounter as we’re moving through development of the program.
. . . as we produce our CEVP report and publish it, it will show the list of risks, well over a hundred, that our team and our partners and our subject matter experts identified. It’s important to understand that we also identified strategies, that we as a team and our partners can take to minimize the potential impact of these risks.

Joint I-5 Committee Meeting, December 12, 2022 

This explanation of the Cost Estimate Validation Process was also posted to the IBR project website (emphasis added):

A Cost Estimate Validation Process (CEVP) was recently completed to provide independent review and validation of project cost and schedule estimates.

A CEVP is an estimation process that analyzes risks specific to the project to quantify the impacts and possible mitigation strategies in seeking to limit the impacts of costs and or delays. Cost risks identified for the IBR program are primarily tied to possible schedule delays, although market uncertainties, changes during construction, and design modifications can all pose a risk to cost escalation. Some specific risks identified in the CVEP include:

▶ Possible legal challenges of program environmental process

▶ In-water work complexities during bridge construction

▶ Delay in state matching funds

“No Records Exist” of a current CEVP

Intrigued to learn more, City Observatory filed a public records request with WSDOT (one of IBR’s two parent state agencies) asking for copies of the CEVP.  We were told that there were no written or electronic records pertaining to the CEVP, and that none would be available before March of 2023—more than ninety days after the IBR testified to the Legislature that the CEVP was “completed.”  Their official response to our request—”No Records Exist”–is shown here:

At this point, there’s simply no evidence that WSDOT undertook any kind of analysis.  They just gravely intoned the words “CEVP” and assured that this would insulate the project from future costs and risks.  If there’s no documentation, no electronic files there’s simply nothing to substantiate that any kind of analysis was actually performed.  It’s hard to see how such an insubstantial or poorly documented process  will do anything to prevent or manage future cost overruns.

One has to believe that IBR, according to its own testimony, generated (and analyzed) a list of more than 100 risks, and reviewed them with subject matter experts, without creating a single document, electronic file or other public record.

Apparently, just as former President Donald Trump can declassify a document just by thinking about it, WSDOT and ODOT can perform a CEVP without creating a single document or electronic file.  This strongly suggests that the real purpose of a CEVP is to distract legislators, not identify or prevent budget or schedule risks.

Deja Vu All Over Again:  The CEVP has proven a failure at predicting or preventing cost-overruns for this very project

Whether a CEVP actually exists as a tangible object or not is an open question. An equally important question is whether a CEVP, if one existed, would do anything to accurately predict, or prevent further cost escalation and schedule delays.  Unfortunately, the history of CEVP with exactly this project shows it did nothing to forestall mistakes, delays and cost increases.

It’s too bad that none of today’s Oregon legislators were on hand the last time they were discussing a huge and risky bridge over the Columbia River, because “CEVP!” is exactly what ODOT officials claimed would avoid cost overruns, when they were asking for funding for the then $3 billon failed Columbia River Crossing (CRC) project (which has been revived as the IBR).  Twelve years ago, in 2011, ODOT consultant and gubernatorial advisor Patricia McCaig confidently told Oregon Legislators that they had a handle on project costs, because of Washington’s CEVP process.

“There is a cost estimating validation process called CEVP from Washington, that is a nationally known model that is applied to the Columbia River Crossing and we will spend as much time as you as like to go through that with you.”

Hearing on HJM 22, House Transportation and Economic Development Committee, March 30, 2011

Despite these assurances that CEVP didn’t head off either delays or cost-overruns on the CRC.  An Independent Review Panel for the CRC appointed by Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski and Washington Governor Christine Gregoire found that there was a “significant risk” that CEVP “was not accurate enough” for financial purposes, and that “the reliability of the final outputs for cost and schedule are seriously suspect.” 

And the panel’s warnings proved correct: Critically, the CEVP prepared for the Columbia River Crossing completely failed to predict the schedule and cost risk from the project’s intentional—and ill-advised—decision to ignore the Coast Guard’s direction about the appropriate height for the bridge.  In 2012, the Coast Guard blocked the project’s record of decision, forcing a year-long delay as the project was re-designed to provide a higher navigation clearance, a change delayed the project a year and added tens of millions of dollars to the project’s cost.  The CEVP also failed to predict that the original design for the project, a so-called “open-web” was unbuildable, and had to be scrapped, causing a year-long delay.

Then, as now, the vaunted “CEVP” exists primarily as a fig-leaf and a talking point to insulate the two DOTs from criticism, and deflect attention from their consistent record of enormous cost-overruns.

In addition, an honest “cost estimate validation process” would reveal that the project is taking huge financial risks by failing to advance either a moveable span or an immersed tube tunnel as full options in the environmental review process.  By ignoring the National Environmental Policy Act’s requirements to fully and fairly appraise such alternatives, it is IBR that is adding considerable cost and schedule risk to the project–an a transparent attempt to force adoption of its preferred massive mega-project.






What the City of Portland said about the Rose Quarter

City of Portland raises big questions about the I-5 Rose Quarter freeway widening project (translated). 

Last month was the deadline for comments on the supplemental environmental analysis for the proposed $1.45 billion I-5 Rose Quarter freeway widening project.

Our friends at Bike Portland got a copy of the city’s comment letter, signed by then Portland Bureau of Transportation director Chris Warner (who’s since moved on to a position in the Oregon Governor’s office).

At City Observatory, we’ve documented the myriad problems with the project, including increasing pollution, worsening safety, failing to solve congestion, and further undermining neighborhood livability.  The City of Portland’s official comment letter echoes many of these concerns, but in a stilted bureaucratic dialect that may not be intelligible to all readers.  As a public service, City Observatory offers its translation; City of Portland comments are shown in quotes, our accompanying translation is in italics.

  • CITY:  “Revisions to the project are needed for alignment with city policy as it relates to prioritizing people walking, rolling, bicycling, and taking transit.”
  • Translation: The project is designed to speed cars on and off the freeway, and on local streets, with dangerous double turn lanes, wide radius corners, and other features that endanger non-car travelers.
  • CITY:  “Lack of clarity in how commitments made as part of the Independent Highway Cover Assessment are provided for. Specifically, how the design will accommodate the community vision to develop a highway cover that can be catalytic in the restoration of high-quality land and provide opportunities for community wealth for generations to come.”
  • Translation:  ODOT promised buildable covers, but is providing no money for their development, and foisting this off on the city.  Plus, the covers are designed only for “lightweight buildings.”  “Lack of clarity” means “you haven’t told us where the money will come from for the promised redevelopment.”
  • CITY:  “Traffic analysis needs to be completed that reflects that the project area is designated as a Multimodal Mixed-Use Area, which provides flexibility for determining significant effects of land use actions, by lifting mobility standard requirements at ODOT facilities while still applying transportation standards such safety and multimodal access.”
  • Translation:  ODOT has designed the freeway for a 70 mph design speed, and prioritizes car movements over local use; this will block the city’s plans to make the area safe for people biking and walking, and attractive for development.<

  • CITY:   “. . .traffic design must consider the impact of pricing on I-5 and the potential for the planned Regional Mobility Pricing Program to change or lower vehicle travel demand in the area.”
  • Translation:  ODOT exaggerated traffic forecasts, and failed to consider that planned road pricing (which is needed to pay for the project) will reduce traffic levels and congestion. (ODOT’s own studies show this would eliminate the need to widen the freeway)
  • CITY: “The project must develop traffic management that provides safe and efficient movement of freight and event district traffic management, including safe and cohesive local and regional access and circulation for all modes.”
  • Translation:  ODOT’s plan would create a dangerous hairpin off-ramp on I-5, which trucks can’t navigate, and which creates a circuitous connection to local streets and the the Moda Center, which will add more than a million miles of driving to local streets.
  • The letter signals some real concerns with the already troubled I-5 Rose Quarter Freeway widening project.  Unfortunately, the subtext of the letter leaves it open to the interpretation that these are minor tweaks the be addressed later in design.  That’s far from the case:  the problems (the width of the freeway, its dangerous hairpin off-ramps, questionably buildable covers, and  traffic inducing size, and hazards to those traveling by bike and on foot are baked into the current design.  The only meaningful way to address these significant impacts is through a full environmental impact statement, something ODOT is desperately trying to avoid by seeking a “finding of no significant impact,” a claim that’s impossible to square the the facts laid out in the city’s letter.

    I-205 tolls will cost you $600 per year

    ODOT’s planned I-205 tolls will cost the average local household $600 annually.

    Regular commuters on I-205 will have to pay $2,200 per year in tolls under the ODOT plan

    The Oregon Department of Transportation is proposing to pay for its widening of the I-205 Interstate South of Portland by charging tolls.  These tolls will represent a significant increase in transportation costs for households living in the southern part of the Portland metropolitan area.

    As we reported at City Observatory earlier, ODOT’s planned tolls will vary by time of day, and will charge users as much as $4.40 to drive I-205 between Oregon City and Wilsonville.

    The project’s Environmental Assessment, just released, shows how these tolls will affect households in this part of the region. These data come from the project’s Economics Technical Report, part of the project’s Environmental Assessment.

    The report uses travel modeling data and Census data to estimate how much a typical household in the I-205 area will pay in tolls each year. The I-205 project would impose tolls of $2.20 (at peak hours) for cars driving across the I-205 Abernethy Bridge over the Willamette River and the I-205 bridge over the Tualatin River.  Most of the people driving across these two bridges live in Clackamas County; the affected area (which the report calls the “Area of Potential Impact” (API) includes parts of Southeast Portland, Washington County and Northern Marion County.  All or nearly all of the cities of West Linn, Gladstone, Lake Oswego, Oregon City, Canby and Wilsonville are included in the API.


    Live inside the red line?  ODOT says you’ll be paying an average of $600 a year in tolls for using I-205.


    About 125,000 households live inside the “API,” roughly one-in-seven of the households in the Portland Metropolitan Area.

    According to the Economics Technical Report, the average household in this area will pay $600 per year in tolls. The net effect of tolling will be to increase the amount of money each household spends on transportation from 7.9 percent of their household income to 8.7 percent of their household income.

    Commuters will pay as much as $2,200 per year in tolls

    Of course, $600 is just an average.  Some households living in this area may travel on these freeways only once or twice a week, and travel at off-peak hours when tolls will be lower.  But regular commuters using the freeway at peak hours will pay much more.  If you drive every day on I-205 through both toll points, you’ll pay $8.80 per day to use the roadway.  Driving five days a week 50 weeks a year, your total tolls would be $2,200 per year.


    Driving between Vancouver and Wilsonville at 5PM? ODOT plans to charge you $15

    Under ODOT’s toll plans, A driving from Wilsonville to Vancouver will cost you as much as $15, each-way, at the peak hour.

    Drive from Vancouver to a job in Wilsonville?  Get ready to shell out as much as $30 per day.

    Tolls don’t need to be nearly this high to better manage traffic flow and assure faster travel times.  The higher tolls are necessitated by the need to finance ODOT’s multi-billion dollar highway spending spree.

    ODOT is telling everyone to get ready for tolls, but they’re being close-mouthed about how much tolls will be.  Here’s what they’re planning, according to documents obtained by City Observatory.

    • Tolls on the I-205 Abernethy and Tualatin River Bridges will be $2.20 each at the peak hour. (Orange)
    • Tolls on the I-5 Interstate Bridge will be up to $5.69 (Green)
    • In addition to these tolls, drivers on I-5 and I-205 will pay tolls of 17 cents to 38 cents per mile during peak hours.  Twenty miles of driving on I-5 or I-205 will cost you between $3.40 and $7.60. (Blue)
    • People who don’t have transponders will also pay a $1.77 processing fee per transaction

    ODOT’s planned tolls for Portland area bridges and highways

    Here’s what your bill could look like for a trip from Wilsonville to Vancouver in just a few years.

    Of course, you have the option of taking I-5, rather than I-205, but if you do, your bill will be pretty similar:

    Why are the tolls so high?  ODOT claims that the tolls are needed to manage congestion, but actually they’re planning on charging toll rates that are vastly higher, and that are poorly designed to actually manage traffic.  The reason:  ODOT is planning to go deeply in to debt to spend billions widening area freeways, and high tolls will be needed to pay back the bonds ODOT issues.  ODOT has already decided to issue $600 million in short term debt (a kind of bureaucrat’s pay-day loan) to get the I-205 projects started.  In the case of the IBR, ODOT and WSDOT will need a huge amount of toll revenue to pay for their super-sized $7.5 billion project.

    If the tolls are set at levels that would just manage traffic they could be much lower at the peak hour, and could be zero in off-peak hours.  The purpose of tolling should be to encourage people to travel at times when the highway system has adequate capacity.  Most peak hour travelers don’t have alternatives, but a good proportion (20 to 30 percent, at least) do have the option of taking their trip at a different time, taking a different route, or using transit.  Moving just a small portion of peak hour traffic off the freeway system means we’ll get much better service and travel times.  But tolls could be much lower than those that would be required to pay off billions of dollars in bonds.  There’s actually no reason to charge tolls overnight, and during most off-peak periods; freeways could still be “free” then, to encourage people to shift their trips to these less busy times, lowering peak hour congestion and avoiding the need for expensive road-widening projects.

    Lower tolls would work better and be more equitable.  Some people are concerned that tolling is inequitable to the poor. Research has shown that because higher income people drive more, drive farther, and are more likely to drive at the peak hour, that tolls fall more heavily on high income households. And even that low level of inequity can be lessened by setting toll levels at the lowest rates consistent with getting free traffic flow (and not high enough to fund super-sized highways).  In addition, very low or zero off-peak tolls make the system more equitable because lower income people are much less likely that high income people to drive at peak hours.  Finally, we ought to use toll revenues to fund a “transportation wallet” for low income households to offset their transportation costs however they choose to travel.  Toll exemptions require you to buy a car to get any benefit, and do nothing to help those who don’t own cars or can’t drive.

    I-205 Bridge Tolls:  $2.20 each way on Abernethy & Tualatin Bridges

    ODOT has been reticent to say what the tolls will be on I-205, but KGW-TV reporter Pat Dorris broadcast testimony at a recent Yamhill County Commission meeting in which ODOT staff revealed that tolls will be $2.20 on each of the two bridges on I-205.

    According to the KGW story, ODOT will charge $2.20 peak hour tolls on the I-205 Abernethy Bridge between Oregon City and West Linn, and an additional $2.20 peak hour toll on the bridge over the Tualatin River between Stafford Road and West Linn.  Those driving from Wilsonville to Oregon City would pay a $4.40 total toll at the peak hour.  Look for ODOT to erect toll gantries over the I-205 roadway with license plate reading cameras and toll-taking transponders:

    I-5 Interstate Bridge Replacement Tolls:  $5.69 each way on the I-5 Bridge

    Similarly, the Interstate Bridge Replacement project has not publicly said what toll levels it is looking at, saying opaquely that this will be decided later.  But tolling is integral to the planning for the bridge:  ODOT can’t estimate the volume of traffic likely to use the bridge without a good idea of what tolls it will charge (the higher the tolls it charges, the fewer vehicles will cross the bridge).   City Observatory has obtained internal WSDOT and ODOT planning documents that show that the IBR project is looking at peak hour tolls of up to $5.69 each way at the peak hour for the new interstate bridge.  Here is an April 4, 2022 email from Jennifer John (a transportation modeler for the IBR project) to Aaron Breakstone (a transportation modeler for Metro).  It explains that they are studying tolls on way, peak hour tolls of $4.45 (in 2010$).

    For analytical convenience, we’ve computed the current, inflation-adjusted value of a $4.45 toll in 2010 dollars–that is equal to $5.69 in today’s (2022 dollars) using the Bureau of Economic Analysis Implicit Price Deflator for Personal Consumption Expenditures (IPD/PCE)–the preferred method of making such comparisons.

    Congestion Pricing Charges:  $10-12 from Wilsonville to Vancouver at Rush Hour

    But bridge tolls aren’t the only road pricing that’s coming:  Oregon DOT is also developing a “Regional Mobility Pricing Program (RMPP).  ODOT’s plan is to institute per mile tolls on Interstate 5 and Interstate 205 between the Boone Bridge in Wilsonville and the Columbia River.  The agency has kept the exact amount of tolls a closely guarded secret.  Planning documents prepared in 2018 said that tolls of 17 cents per mile to 38 cents per mile would be needed to manage traffic under value pricing, the project now called the Regional Mobility Pricing Program.

    Shhh!  Toll levels are a deep secret.

    The typical ODOT line is something like the following:  “Tolls will be set about six months before the project opens; tolls will be determined by the Oregon Transportation Commission, after public hearings.”  Here’s the typical shine-on as reported by the Portland Tribune:

    According to ODOT, the exact toll rate pricing will be based on congestion relief goals, revenue needs and public input. The exact pricing is expected to be announced about six months before tolls begin.

    That non-answer begs the question about what toll levels will be.  And for both financial and traffic forecasting reasons, ODOT has to know the approximately level of tolls well in advance.  If it doesn’t know the toll level, it not only doesn’t know how much money tolling will provide toward the cost of the project, and critically, because tolls will depress traffic levels, it needs to know how high tolls will be to accurate forecast traffic (which determines the need for the project) as well as the amount of revenue.  As a practical matter, ODOT staff and consultants have already developed working estimates of tolls, they’re just not making them public.  (Notice the word “exact” appears twice, and that tolls will be “announced” six months in advance.  Make no mistake:  ODOT will decide the approximate level of tells well in advance; in reality, they likely already know).

    City Observatory has obtained ODOT emails showing the agency is trying to keep the exact level of toll charges a secret–even from the Metro regional government and the City of Portland.

    ODOT has resisted releasing any documents showing the exact level of tolls used in their traffic modeling.  In October, 2022, City Observatory requested information on proposed toll levels and was told it would be charged over $2,000 to provide such information.

    Regional Mobility Pricing Program Tolls

    The regional mobility pricing program will charge drivers based on the distance they travel on I-5 and I-205, with rates varying by time of day.  To illustrate the approximate range of expected tolls along I-5 and I-205, we’ve used Google Maps to compute the distance between the Boone Bridge in Wilsonville and the two freeway bridges across the Columbia River.  The I-5 route between Wilsonville and the Interstate Bridge is 29.5 miles long.  At 17 cents per mile, the toll would be $4.45; at 38 cents per mile the toll would be $9.96.The I-205 route between Wilsonville and the Interstate Bridge is 32.5 miles long.  At 17 cents per mile, the toll would be $5.53; at 38 cents per mile the toll would be $12.35.

    This calculation assumes that the Regional Mobility Pricing Program (RMPP) fees for the segment of I-205 between Stafford Road and Oregon City are in addition to the tolls charged at the Abernethy and Tualatin River I-205 bridges.  ODOT has not revealed how RMPP tolls will interact with bridge tolls.  If ODOT does not charge an RMPP toll on this segment of the freeway, the toll for a Wilsonville-Vancouver trip would be $1.19 to $2.26 less than these estimes.

    Additional Fees for vehicles without transponders.  $2 more each time if you don’t have a transponder.

    For both bridge tolls, and for the congestion pricing system, OregonDOT is planning on barrier-free all-electronic tolling.  Cars and trucks would pass under a toll-gantry, and antennae would communicate with in-vehicle transponders–small windshield stickers.  Cars that didn’t have transponders would have their license plates photographed, and would be billed by mail.

    Washington charges those without transponders an additional $2.00 when they travel through downtown Seattle’s tolled SR 99 tunnel:

    Those who are billed by mail would pay an additional surcharge to cover the costs of billing.  Again, ODOT isn’t revealing how much that surcharge would be.  Estimates prepared for the Columbia River Crossing said that the surcharge for “pay-by-mail” would be $1.77 per transaction.  In addition, City Observatory has obtained more recent ODOT planning documents indicating that the surcharge would be $2.00 per transaction, just as in Washington.

    Higher tolls for trucks:  3 to 5 times higher than for cars.

    For I-205, ODOT told KGW that trucks would pay higher tolls—but declined to reveal how much higher.  KGW’s Pat Dooris reports:

    Currently, the planning model includes large trucks being charged higher toll rates than passenger vehicles.

    A 2013 study paid for by ODOT for the Columbia River Crossing said that  tolls for 18-wheelers would be four- or five-times higher than tolls charged to passenger cars.  One-way peak hour tolls for 18-wheeler trucks would be $14.65.  Trucks without transponders would pay another $2 for “pay by mail” processing.”  We’ve obtained, via public records request, a 2022 ODOT study showing that trucks traveling on I-205 would pay four times the passenger car rate, or $17.60, one way, at peak hours—plus a $2.00 surcharge, if they didn’t have a transponder.


    Where toll rate data comes from

    As we’ve said, ODOT has been very secretive about toll levels.  We obtained the toll level estimates from a variety of ODOT documents.  They include the following:

    I-5 Bridge Replacement Tolls:  Memorandum from Jennifer Johns of IBR to Aaron Breakstone of Metro, April 22, 2022. (Obtained via public records request).

    Regional Mobility Pricing Program Tolls:   Oregon Department of Transportation,, (2018). Portland Metro Area Value Pricing Feasibility Analysis Final Round 1 Concept Evaluation and Recommendations Technical Memorandum #3, 2018.

    Surcharges for those without transponders and Truck Rate Multiplier:  2013 CDM Smith Investment Grade Analysis of Columbia River Crossing.

    I-205 Abernethy and Tualatin River Bridge Tolls:  KGW TV reports.

    WSP for Oregon Department of Transportation, I-205 Toll Project, Level 2 Toll Traffic and Revenue Study Report, Revised October 2022 (obtained via public records request).

    We have made multiple public records requests to ODOT for the latest information on planned tolls  ODOT has declined to provide data on IBR and RMPP tolls.  If ODOT would like to provide more accurate information, City Observatory will revise this commentary to reflect those data.



    The Week Observed, February 3, 2023

    What City Observatory did this week

    Groundhog’s Day for Climate.  So you think you’re not Bill Murray in the classic “Groundhog’s Day?”  Oregonians, ask yourself:  are we anywhere closer to seriously addressing the climate crisis than we were a year ago?  Greenhouse gas emissions are still increasing, chiefly because we’re driving more, and our policies are still subsidizing even more driving, including billions of dollars for freeway widening projects.
    City of Portland raises big questions about the I-5 Rose Quarter freeway widening project (translated).  Last month was the deadline for comments on the supplemental environmental analysis for the proposed $1.45 billion I-5 Rose Quarter freeway widening project.  At City Observatory, we’ve documented the myriad problems with the project, including increasing pollution, worsening safety, failing to solve congestion, and further undermining neighborhood livability.
    The City of Portland’s official comment letter echoes many of these concerns, but in a stilted bureaucratic dialect that may not be intelligible to all readers.  As a public service, City Observatory offers its translation.

    Must Read

    Why just electrifying cars is an environmental disaster. Curbed’s Alissa Walker points out that the idea that a one-for-one replacement of internal combustion vehicles with ever more massive electric vehicles poses some serious environmental costs.  Vehicle sizes have been creeping ever upward–now topping more than two tons–and electric vehicles are heavier still than their fossil fueled counterparts, due to the prodigious weight of batteries.  Most of the electricity used to power these vehicles is used, not to move a few hundred pounds of human occupants and their cargo, but rather to transport the huge vehicles and their batteries.  Because batteries require substantial natural resources, especially lithium, which has to be mined, larger vehicles have a higher environmental impact.  The transition to EVs could be an opportunity to have smaller, more efficient vehicles, including e-bikes.  That would have a far smaller environmental impact, and lead to a much faster and surer reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

    Why are US roads so deadly?  An illuminating chart from the League of American Bicyclists shows how road safety in each of the 50 US states (red) compares to major nations around the globe (blue).

    France, Germany, Britain, Japan and Canada all of per capita road death rates lower than any US state.  Only a handful of nations–all in Latin America, have per capita road death rates as high as typical US states.  The high income, developed nations of the world all have vastly lower death rates.  It’s likely we have a lot to learn from the rest of the world about transportation safety.

    New Knowledge

    Black drivers are stopped more often for speeding and pay higher fines.  A new study looks at the variation in traffic enforcement by race.  It uses a novel source of data that lays bare the racial bias in policing.

    The authors use data from the automated tracking of Lyft drivers in Florida, which record location and vehicle travel speeds.  As a result, after controlling for a variety of factors, including vehicle type, time of day, roadway, and the actual speed the vehicle was traveling, the study can tease out the difference in the likelihood that a driver will be cited for speeding, and, once-cited how high fine they will pay.

    The bottom line of the study, unsurprisingly, is that minority drivers are more likely to be stopped, and once stopped pay higher fines than white drivers.  The data show that minority drivers are about 24 to 33 percent more likely to be cited and pay fines that are about 23 to 34 percent higher than white drivers.

    Aside from the headline finding, there are other interesting details.  The Lyft data showed that being cited  for speeding actually led to a change in driver behavior.  Drivers were much less likely to exceed the speed limit in the eight weeks after getting a ticket than they were before.  The effect was esssentially the same for White and Minority drivers.


    Pradhi Aggarwal, Alec Brandon, Ariel Goldszmidt, Justin Holz, John A. List, Ian Muir, Gregory Sun, and Thomas Yu, “High-frequency location data shows that race affects the likelihood of being stopped and fined for speeding, ” Lyft, December 9, 2022


    The Week Observed, February 24, 2023

    What City Observatory did this week

    IBR admits its bridge is too steep.  After 15 years of telling the region that the only feasible alternative for crossing the Columbia River was a pair of side-by-side double-decker bridges, the IBR project let slip that it was now thinking about a single level crossing, ostensibly because it provided better “aesthetic” options.  This comes after telling anyone who proposed an alternative (such as a bascule bridge or tunnel) that even thinking about an alternative design would impose unmanageable delays.  But the decision to consider a single level crossing is an admission that one persistent IBR critic has been right all along.
    Engineer Bob Ortblad had noted that the proposed bridge would require nearly a 4 percent grade (making it one of the steepest interstate bridges).  The real reason for a single level crossing is to lop 30-35 feet off of the bridge’s height, and reduce roadway grade (and not incidentally reduce the cost of connecting the very high bridge to adjacent roads.
    Until recently, the only other alternative they showed was an even taller “stacked” single bridge that put the two roadway sections on separate levels of a single bridge.

    ODOT’s planned I-205 tolls will cost the average local household $600 annually.  The Oregon Department of Transportation just released its Environmental Assessment for the proposed I-205 highway widening project.  The project would be paid for by tolling traffic on the roadway as much as $4.40 at the peak hour.

    The project’s economic report concludes that the typical household in Clackamas County will pay about $600 per year in tolls.  Regular commuters on I-205—those who drive daily at morning and afternoon peak hours—will have to pay $2,200 per year in tolls under the ODOT plan.  Why are the tolls so high? OregonDOT’s tolls are set high enough to generate the revenue needed to pay for the roughly $1 billion project (plus interest costs) over the next 20 to 30 years. While the purpose of the project is to reduce congestion, it’s likely these toll levels are so high that traffic will fall dramatically–meaning that the expensive freeway expansion isn’t needed.

    Must Read

    Even an unbuilt highway can destroy a neighborhood.  Writing at Bloomberg City Lab, Megan Kimble profiles the impacts of the proposed I-49 freeway expansion project in Shreveport Louisiana.  Its well understood that previous highway construction projects have systematically devastated urban neighborhoods, but Kimble reports that just the potential for this freeway widening through the Allendale neighborhood of Shreveport has already done its damage.  Once a highway department announces its construction plans, it has a chilling effect on private investment in the area:  who wants to buy a home in the path of, or worse yet, right next to a new highway project.  That’s exactly what’s happened in Allendale, where highway planners have a proposed “Inner City Connector” which aims to speed traffic by cutting a swath through disinvested Black neighborhoods.

    Allendale’s freeway fight sets the stage for a reprise of a long established urban drama, with freeways plowing through minority neighborhoods.  Its something that the current administration has acknowledged and says it wants to correct, but that’s very much a live issue in Shreveport.  Kimble writes:

    [Transportation Secretary Pete] Buttigieg and President Joe Biden have committed to repairing this harm, which is usually referred to in the past tense. But in Allendale, many residents see the Inner-City Connector as a contemporary variation on this pattern — a low-income Black neighborhood threatened with destruction to save drivers a few minutes of travel time. And they built a coalition of their own to resist.

    Economic development hits a new nadir:  subsidies for In-and-Out burger.  Cities and states, it seems, will subsidize almost any business, as long as its clothed in the language of economic development and job creation.  The latest–and one of the most egregious examples comes from Tennessee, where the state has awarded $2.75 million in economic development assistance to the California drive-thru hamburger chain “In-and-Out-Burger” to build an office and restaurants in the Volunteer State.  Restaurants are a particularly good example of a “local-serving” business, meaning most, if not all of the spending (and jobs) for such businesses will be driven by the appetites of Tennesseans.  Subsidizing In-and-Out-Burger won’t lead to any more eating out, or spending in in Tennessee; but what it will do is advantage a large, out-of-state business in competition against every Mom and Pop restaurant in the state.

    It’s tragic to think that you can build your economy by subsidizing the expansion of one fast-food chain to the likely competitive detriment of all the others, but that’s the current state of the art in what passes for professional economic development in much of the United States.

    Wales puts an end to highway expansions.  Regular readers of City Observatory will be familiar with the science of induced travel:  building more roadway capacity does little to reduce congestion, and instead, simply stimulates more driving, pollution and traffic.  That realization has dawned full force on policy-makers in Wales, who, after a careful review of the scientific literature, have largely pulled the plug on further roadway expansions in Wales.

    The Welsh government said all future roads must pass strict criteria which means they must not increase carbon emissions, they must not increase the number of cars on the road, they must not lead to higher speeds and higher emissions, and they must not negatively impact the environment.

    The background is this:  In 2021, the national government put highway projects on hold, pending a policy review.  The conclusion, based on a careful examination of the results of past expansion projects, led the government to cancel or greatly revise 44 of 59 pending road projects.  Those that are being allowed to proceed are mostly smaller scale improvements.

    New Knowledge

    The illusion of travel time “savings.”  The typical rationalization for many highway expansion programs is that they will produce big economic benefits to travelers by reducing travel times.  If you can drive faster, the reasoning goes, that will knock a few minutes off your trip, and the time that’s freed up is something you can use (and will value).  There are a lot of problems with this theory, chief among them the reality of induced travel (which means that if a road becomes faster or has higher capacity, more people will use it, and quickly erase the travel time savings).  But even if a road is faster, that doesn’t equate to actual time “savings” according to a thoughtful analysis published in Transportation Research Interdisciplinary Procedings.

    The trouble with the idea of travel time savings is the partial equilibrium or “ceteris paribus” (all other things equal) assumption that’s lurking in this calculation.  If all trip taking remains exactly the same, and all development remains just as it is, in theory, faster travel ought to translate into less time spent traveling.  But in practice, and over time, other things don’t remain the same, they change, in response to the faster travel time.  When we can drive faster, we travel farther.  And recognizing that, over time, activities and people spread out further.  The famous Marchetti’s constant is the observation that for centuries, cities have been arranged so that most daily travel is about thirty minutes in one direction.  Faster travel translated into larger, less dense cities, but not shorter travel times.

    This effect plainly shows up when we look at historical trends in travel speeds and travel behavior.  As travel has become faster, trips have become longer, and people (and activities) have become more widespread.  National travel surveys from Britain show that between 1972 and 2003, the speed and distance of trips increased in tandem, while the number of trips and the total amount of time spent traveling remained essentially flat.

    The fact that faster travel speeds don’t translate into realized time savings suggests that the claims that highway advocates regularly make about the economic value attributable to highway expansions are largely false.  That’s not to say that highways don’t have economic effects:  but what they do is decentralize economic activity, and longer trips have significant private costs, as well as large social and environmental costs, that are seldom fully considered.

    Cornelis Dirk van Goeverden, “The value of travel speed,” Transportation Research Interdisciplinary Perspectives
    Volume 13, March 2022, 100530

    In the News

    StreetsblogUSA cited City Observatory’s research on the connection between education and urban prosperity in its story describing how weak public transit systems restrict access to education opportunities.

    The Week Observed, February 17, 2023

    What City Observatory did this week

    Driving between Vancouver and Wilsonville at 5PM? ODOT plans to charge you $15.  Under ODOT’s toll plans, A driving from Wilsonville to Vancouver will cost you as much as $15, each-way, at the peak hour.  Drive from Vancouver to a job in Wilsonville? Get ready to shell out as much as $30 per day.

    Tolls don’t need to be nearly this high to better manage traffic flow and assure faster travel times. The higher tolls are necessitated by the need to finance ODOT’s multi-billion dollar highway spending spree. ODOT is telling everyone to get ready for tolls, but they’re being close-mouthed about how much tolls will be. Here’s what they’re planning, according to documents obtained by City Observatory.

    • Tolls on the I-205 Abernethy and Tualatin River Bridges will be $2.20 each at the peak hour. (Orange)
    • Tolls on the I-5 Interstate Bridge will be up to $5.69 (Green)
    • In addition to these tolls, drivers on I-5 and I-205 will pay tolls of 17 cents to 38 cents per mile during peak hours. Twenty miles of driving on I-5 or I-205 will cost you between $3.40 and $7.60. (Blue)

    Road pricing could be an effective means to reduce congestion.  But the toll levels ODOT is proposing are really designed to maximize revenue, not to manage congestion.  Tolls could be vastly lower if set just high enough to allow a free flow of traffic.  And there’s no need to do congestion pricing during off-peak hours when there’s plenty of under-used roadway space.  But ODOT isn’t interested in managing traffic, it just wants more money to build things.

    Must Read

    Time to sue the bleeping engineers for malpractice.  Jeff Speck has had enough.  The author of Walkable City, has (through years of work, public speaking and two editions of his book) exposed the profound biases in the dominant transportation planning paradigm.  While there’s considerable blame for increasingly large and dangerous sport utility vehicles and our sprawling, auto-dependent development patterns, the way we design our roads is major contributor to America’s high (and rising) traffic fatality rate.

    Put simply, the roadway design standards enshrined by our nation’s professional civil engineers are unnecessarily deadly to the point of criminal negligence. It’s time to place blame and demand change. . . . Engineers routinely design streets to support (and therefore invite) speeds well above the posted speed limit. Then, when speeding is observed on these streets, the manual published by the Federal Highway Administration requires that the speed limit be raised.

    Highway design emphasizes speed and throughput over safety, particularly for those walking and biking.  While there’s plenty of specific policies that can be changed, Speck argues its time to assign legal liability to highway engineers for their dangerous designs.  Perversely, they’re now frequently fearful to make changes that might improve safety (like unique paint designs for crosswalks) because such innovations are approved in the auto-centric highway design manuals.  It’s a deeply flawed system, desperately in need of radical change.

    Right on cue, the Oregon Department of Transportation has decided the best way to improve pedestrian safety is to . . . close lots of crosswalks.  Faced with a growing epidemic of traffic violence, OregonDOT has hit on a new strategy.  As Bike Portland reports, it plans to close crosswalks on more than 180 Portland area roadways that it controls.  Most egregious, the agency plans to close xx crosswalks on dangerous Powell Boulevard, a roadway the claimed the life of Portland chef Sarah Pilner just a few months ago.

    OregonDOT: Vision Zero . . . Zero pedestrians. (Bike Portland)

    Of course, closing the crosswalks doesn’t make the roadway any safer, it just effectively eliminates the criminal penalties (and bureaucratic responsibility) when motorists end up hitting pedestrians.  And it’s a clever way for the agency to avoid making the crossing actually safer (or comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act).  If it’s not a crosswalk, ODOT doesn’t have to fix it, or bring it up to ADA standards.

    The ironic insult added to injury of this policy, of course, is that all of the crosswalk closures will substantially lengthen the distances that pedestrians have to walk to legally cross these roadways.  Many closures will add several minutes to the amount of time needed to reach an otherwise nearby destination:  and OregonDOT would never, ever tolerate a safety measure that forced a motorist to experience a similar level of delay.  As Jeff Speck observed, these policies make it clear that highway departments value to motorists’ time above pedestrians lives and limbs.

    In the News

    The Oregonian quoted City Observatory’s analysis of planned tolls on Portland area roadways in its article: “Tolls are coming to Portland-area freeways, and even tolling fans worry they’ll stack up.”

    Willamette Week quoted City Observatory’s Joe Cortright on the Interstate Bridge Project’s plans to dramatically redesign a proposed Columbia River Bridge, an implicit admission that critics have been right all along.

    The Week Observed, February 10, 2023

    What City Observatory did this week

    CEVP: Non-existent cost controls for the $7.5 billion IBR project.  Oregon DOT has a history of enormous cost overruns, and just told the Oregon and Washington Legislatures that the cost of the I-5 Bridge Replacement Program (IBR) had ballooned 54 percent, to as much as $7.5 billion.

    To allay fears of poor management and further cost overruns, IBR officials testified they had completed a “Cost Estimate Validation Process” (CEVP). They assured legislators they had consulted independent subject matter experts and assessed more than 100 risks.

    But asked for copies of the CEVP under the public records law, agency officials reported “no records exist” of the CEVP.

    And the supposedly “nationally recognized” CEVP process has been around for more than a decade, was judged inadequate and error-filled for the Columbia River Crossing, and failed to detect key cost and schedule risks.

    ODOT and WSDOT are more interested in deflecting criticism than in being accountable for—and correcting—runaway project costs.

    Must Read

    Lower parking requirements = More housing.  For decades now, scholars, led by the estimable Donald Shoup, have pointed out that parking requirements drive up the price of housing, which means that less new housing gets built.  And now, from Oregon, comes evidence that this process works in reverse:  lessening parking requirements leads to more housing getting built.  The Sightline Institute’s Catie Gould documents three case studies of projects that moved forward—or got bigger—because of eased parking requirements.

    One of the frustrating cognitive obstacles in housing policy debate is no one can see the housing that isn’t built because of bad policies.  That’s what’s great about Catie Gould’s story:  it shows that when you get rid of bad policies, like excessive parking requirements, you get new housing that you can actually see.  One hopes policy makers and the public, will learn from object lessons like this one.

    Another refrain on the science of induced demand.  There’s a huge and growing body of literature documenting the phenomenon of induced travel:  widening highways doesn’t reduce congestion, it simply prompts more travel, longer commutes and more pollution.  That message is gradually making its way to a wider audience.  Business Insider offers its take:

    With billions of federal dollars available under the IIJA, the decisions states make will have a huge impact on our ability to meet our climate goals.  As The Rocky Mountain Institute’s Ben Holland relates:

    “This is a make-or-break moment; How the states use those highway funds will basically determine whether we meet our transportation emissions goals.”

    A rising death toll from taller trucks.  The latest fashion trend in American trucks is massive, menacing front grills.  Longer, lower, wider has given way to taller, bolder . . . and deadlier.  Tall front grills impair driver visibility; small children and even some short adults are simply invisible in the blind spots created by tall front ends.  The results are a massive increase in crashes called “front-overs”–where a driver runs over a person immediately in front of their vehicle.

    The term itself is adapted from the awful, but historically much more common “back over” crash–where a driver doesn’t see someone behind their car, and simply backs up over them.  For obvious reasons, front-over victims, like back over victims are disproportionately children.  The data show that front over crashes have increased from 15 in the 1990s to nearly 600 in the last decade.

    Front-over deaths up from 15 to 575. (Scale error in original).

    New Knowledge

    Remote-working professionals workers gravitate toward dense neighborhoods.  If you’ve even casually followed the discussions of the post-pandemic prognostications about the future of cities in the world of remote work, you’ll know that the dominant hypothesis is that, once freed from the need to commute to downtown jobs, workers will flee cities for cheaper and more bucolic suburbs and rural hamlets. After all, why would anyone want to live in a dense, and expensive city if you didn’t have to work nearby?

    What that hypothesis ignores, is that cities don’t just provide places to work, city residents value the opportunities and amenities of urban life for many other reasons.

    A new study from the Leah Brooks and colleagues at the American Enterprise Institute looks at the relationship between neighborhood density and where remote-workers tend to live. Brooks, et al examine block group level data on demographic characteristics (particularly income), and the industry of employment of block group residents. We know from other work that there is systematic variation in the degree to which jobs in different industries are amenable to telework. Finance, professional service and management service jobs are much more likely to allow work-at-home arrangements.

    What the study finds finds, from data prior to the pandemic, is that, controlling for income, those workers most likely to be able to work from home tended to be more likely to choose to live in denser neighborhoods.

    Brooks, et al offer three possible reasons why higher income workers in “teleworkable” jobs are more likely to live in denser neighborhoods.

    First, if workers in industries with greater telework potential enjoy more leisure time in equilibrium, their willingness to pay for amenities that complement leisure increases, and such amenities may not be available in lower-density areas.

    Second, if workers value social interactions, and interactions at work are less frequent, they may seek out social interaction in non-work settings. Non-work social interactions are more readily found in population dense areas.

    Third, and similarly, if in-person contact drives agglomeration effects, a shift to remote work makes such contact outside the work place more valuable. Again, in-person contact is easier in more population dense-areas. All of these explanations point toward increased telework leading to a greater willingness to pay for housing in high density places.

    What this research suggests is that people don’t live in and near cities just to be close to jobs, but—as scholars as diverse as Jane Jacobs and Robert Lucas have said—to be near other people.  And paradoxically, if people aren’t getting as much social interaction by going to work every day, it is likely they will value the density and variety of opportunities for social interaction in cities even more, rather than less.

    Leah Brooks, Philip G. Hoxie, Stan Veuger, Working from Density, AEI Economics Working Paper 2023-01 January 2023

    In the News

    Transit Center cited City Observatory’s analysis of Oregon’s broken system of road finance, and its fundamental incompatibility with stated climate objectives.

    Climate: Our Groundhog Day Doom Loop

    Every year, the same story:  We profess to care about climate change, but we’re driving more and greenhouse gas emissions are rising rapidly.

    Oregon is stuck in an endless loop of lofty rhetoric, distant goals, and zero actual progress

    If it seems to you like you’ve read this before, you have:  We’re marking this year’s Groundhog Day noting that despite our stated goal to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, we’re actually not making any progress on climate change.  The Oregon Global Warming Commission’s latest report reads like its predecessors.  It chronicles the growing climate crisis, yet again declaring the state’s adopted goal to have lower carbon emissions by 2050, and presenting the data showing that we’re utterly failing to make meaningful progress. Here’s the key takeaway from the report:  The yellow lines show the state’s stated goals, the dotted orange lines show the path we’re on.  And if you look at the black (“actual”) line, you’ll see that emissions have actually increased since 2010.  In short, in no way are we on track to meet our adopted goals.

    Once again, we find ourselves in the same predicament as Bill Murray in the 1993 movie, Groundhog’s Day–waking up every morning to discover that it’s still February 2, and that he’s done nothing to change any of the behaviors that have messed up his life.

    Last year we noted that Oregon leaders were caught in the trap of yet another allegorical movie “Don’t Look Up.”  We’re coping with the climate crisis—and our failure to take it seriousl—with a kind of second-order denial, not pretending that climate change isn’t real, but instead pretending that we’re actually doing anything to solve it, or more precisely that pretending that the things that we are doing are not ineffectual.

    Since our first groundhog day commentary there have been a series of catastrophic forest fires smothered most of the state in clouds of smoke for a solid week in September 2020.  The fires destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres of forest, forced tens of thousands of Oregonians to evacuate their homes, destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses.  Having experienced it first hand, it was an apocalyptic scene.

    Bottom line: the state is failing to meet its legislatively adopted greenhouse gas reduction goals.  The state had set an interim target of reducing emissions by a very modest 10 percent from 1990 levels by 2020.  The final 2020 data aren’t in yet, but it’s clear that the state will fail to meet that goal, and not by a little, but by a lot—26 percent to be exact—according to the commission:

    While Oregon met the 2010 emissions reduction goal established in 2007, we are highly unlikely to meet the 2020 goal. Preliminary 2019 sector-based emissions data and GHG emissions projections indicate that Oregon’s 2020 emissions are likely to exceed the State’s 2020 emissions reduction goal by approximately 26 percent or 13.4 million metric tons of CO2e, erasing most of the gains we had made between 2010 and 2014.

    We gave ourselves three decades to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by just 10 percent, and instead over that time, increased them by more than 10 percent.  How realistic is it to expect that we’ll meet our adopted goal of reducing emissions by 75 percent from 1990 levels (more than 77 percent from today’s levels) by 2050.

    The original inspiration for our Groundhog’s Day commentary was the 2017 report of the Oregon Global Warming Commission, a body set up to monitor how well the state was doing in achieving its legally adopted goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 75 percent from 1990 levels by the year 2050. In addition to its goal, Oregon has a tiny citizen commission charged with riding herd on the state’s emissions inventory, and looking to see what, if any progress the state is making in reducing greenhouse gases. The short story four years ago was:  Not very good.  Although the state reduced some power plant and industrial emissions, nearly all these gains were wiped out by increased driving. The 2017 Legislature that received that report not only did essentially nothing in response, it arguably laid the groundwork to make the problem worse, by approving a new transportation finance package providing upwards of a billion dollars to widen Portland area freeways.

    It’s now the case that transportation is the single largest source of greenhouse gases, and for the past several years, Oregon’s emissions are rising. And the culprit is clear:  More driving.  As we’ve pointed out at City Observatory: the decline in gasoline prices in mid-2014 prompted an increasing in driving and with it, an increase in crashes and carbon pollution.  Per capita greenhouse gas emissions from transportation have increased more than 14 percent since 2013, by about 1,000 pounds per person. Total greenhouse gas emissions from transportation have increased by about 1.6 million tons per year over that time.

    As a result of the growth in driving and related emissions, and slower than expected progress in reducing emissions from other sources, there’s no way the state on the path it needs to be on to reach its 2050 goal. Transportation emissions are actually increasing from their 2010 levels—at a time when the state’s climate strategy called for them to be declining. (In the chart below, the blue line is the glide slope to achieving the state’s adopted 2050 goal, and the pale green line is the estimate of where the state is headed).

    The best estimate is that rather than the eighty percent reduction from 1990 levels that the state has set as a goal, we’ll see barely a 20 percent reduction by 2050.  And these reductions are predicated on assumptions about more rapid fleet turnover, lower sales of trucks and SUVs, and steadily tougher fuel economy standards, when in fact the fleet is getting older (and staying dirtier), trucks and SUVs have dramatically increased their market share, and the federal government has walked back its fuel economy standards.  So its highly unlikely that even the 20 percent reduction by 2050 will be realized.

    As the commission notes in its latest report, it will take more than electrifying vehicles as fast as possible to come anywhere close to meeting the state’s goals:

    It is critical that the state leverages resources to support the use of clean vehicles and fuels and reduce vehicle miles traveled per capita. Technological advancements and penetration of ZEVs alone won’t be enough to meet emissions goals. We encourage the Legislature to fully fund the necessary follow-on work identified by the agencies. We also need to take steps to help people drive less by strategically redesigning our communities and transportation systems. 

    (emphasis added)

    In the best of all possible worlds, this warning would prompt the Governor and legislators–ever mindful of their legally enacted commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions–to redouble their efforts and figure out ways to discourage carbon pollution, especially from transportation. After all, Oregon’s government passed a law mandating a reduction in greenhouse gases.  In the law adopted in 2007, the state committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 10 percent from 1990 levels by the year 2020, and the further goal of reducing them by 75 percent by 2050. Many other states and cities have similar adopted goals. But few cities are actually achieving these goals, as a recent audit by the Brookings Institution makes clear.

    The reason is that there’s a deep flaw in the “pledge now, pollute less later” approach. Despite the high-minded and quantitative nature of these goals, the actual date for their achievement is set far so in the future, as to be beyond the expected political lifetime of any of the public officials adopting these goals. And there’s no mechanism, aside from moral suasion, to require accomplishment of these goals. So in practice, what they may do is simply give politicians cover for conspicuously expressing concern about climate change, without actually having to do anything substantive or difficult to attain it.

    The Hippocratic Oath directs physicians, first, “to do no harm.”  The same ought to apply to state and local governments who profess to care about climate change. If we know driving is the biggest source of carbon pollution, and it’s causing us to increase emissions when we need to be decreasing them, the very last thing we should be doing is expanding freeways, which encourage people to drive even more. That’s why we think that Portland area freeway widening projects like the proposed $1.2 billion expansion of I-5 should be taken off the table.  That money—and billions of dollars in other subsidies to automobile transportation—would be far better spent in building communities that are designed to enable low carbon living.

    The International Panel on Climate Change has made it clear in its most recent report that we’re rapidly approaching a point of no return if we’re to avoid serious and permanent damage to the climate. We’re going to need something more than soothing rhetoric and distant goals to avoid dramatically altering our planet. As we wrote in a year ago,  2021 would have been a good time to start taking climate change seriously.  We’ve mostly squandered another year, unless things change, next year’s  Groundhog Day will be depressingly similar, and even more grim.