Bad data: Not a decline in travel

An imagined decline in trip-making is the result of bad data analysis

USDOT counted fewer trips in 2022, because it used a different, and less reliable survey method

USDOT’s social media created a false perception that 2022 data were comparable with earlier years

For all the time we spend talking about transportation, it’s surprising how little good data we have.  The Census Bureau asks a narrow set of questions about our daily journey to work as part of its annual American Community Survey, but this misses the vast majority of travel that is neither to or from a workplace.

The US Department of Transportation commissions a periodic “National Household Travel Survey” to as a richer and more detailed set of questions about all kinds of travel.  The NHTS serves as a vital benchmark for understanding travel patterns.

Completed in 2022, this latest survey seems well positioned to help us answer the question of how the Covid-19 pandemic changed our travel patterns. Last week, US DOT tweeted out an infographic offering a key finding from the latest NHTS.

WARNING: You cannot compare the 2017 and 2022 data.

The graphic seems to show a dramatic—even catastrophic—decline in trip making.  The headline is “Decrease in DAILY TRIPS”. the explanatory text offers “In 2022, household travel decreased compared to 2017.”  The table reports trips fell from 3.4 per person per day, to barely 2 per day.

Big, if true.  The message “decrease in trips” is  clearly the take that active transportation blogger Angie Schmitt got from the data, repeating the top-line number from the graphic, and then musing over our growing isolation, in a Substack essay entitled “Nobody’s leaving the house anymore.”

In 2017, Americans used to average more than three trips a day. Going to work and back and then going somewhere else — that’s three trips. And also maybe they went to the store every other day, or a friend’s house. Now, people are taking just a little over 2 trips a day. . . .

As I said, I find this stunning. And let me explain a little more why. This is a HUGE HUGE change in the way people live their lives and their daily activity. I have been involved in sustainable transportation advocacy for over a decade, and the kinds of changes we try to implement — I cannot imagine it having an impact on this scale this quickly.

But Angie was right to describe this kind of change as unimaginable.  Upon closer inspection, the supposed decline in trip-making is likely an illusion from bad data (or, more precisely, bad data inferences).

There’s a problem with the data.  Between 2017 and 2022, the US DOT made some major changes to its data gathering methodology for the NHTS.  First, it shifted to a primarily on-line data gathering method.  Earlier surveys relied more on in-person interviews.  Second, and more importantly, the survey eliminated the “travel diary.”  Earlier versions of the NHTS sent participants a travel diary, in which to contemporaneously record their travel.  The 2022 online survey doesn’t include a diary, and relies on the recollection of participants.

As the technical notes to the study (which appear on the website of the Oakridge National Laboratory, which conducted the survey for USDOT) reveal, this change almost certainly accounts for much (and perhaps all) of the decline in reported trip-making.  Examining the results of earlier surveys, USDOT concluded that relying solely on recollection (as opposed to contemporaneous diaries) left out about 20 percent of all trips.

To be sure, it may well be that trip-making now is different (and lower) than it was pre-pandemic.  It;s just that you can’t use this data to make any reliable statements about the direction or size of the change because the methodologies are substantially different from year to year.

In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Salah snatched a poisoned date from the air just before Indiana Jones swallowed it, exclaiming “Bad dates”.  Unfortunately, we weren’t able to snatch this bad data before it got swallowed.

The critical takeaway for any user of this NHTS data has to be that it you simply can’t compare the 2017 trip-making data with the 2022 trip making data.  This shouldn’t be an obscure footnote:  it should be a cigarette-pack warning.  But, with its cute-infographic, the USDOT did exactly the opposite.  Its tweet approvingly presents the two data sets as directly comparable.  Thanks to this misinformation, we are running into the “BS-Asymmetry” problem: it takes almost no effort to use social media to create a false (but interesting) finding, and vastly more effort to correct the error.  We hope that US DOT will take steps to correct this mistaken impression.

If it were true that overall trip-making had fallen by about a third, that would have profound implications for the transportation system.  It would, for example, call into question almost every expenditure to expand highway capacity.  Its a shame that the NHTS data are presented in such a sloppy and inaccurate way, by of all entities, the US Department of Transportation.

None of this is to say that the National Household Travel Survey is useless.  The key point here is that 2022 data can’t be directly compared with earlier data to make plausible assertions about changing travel patterns.  It turns out that’s one of the big issues that we want to know about–because it definitely appears that the pandemic and the advent of work-from-home has produced some fundamental changes in travel patterns.

Down is not up: The truth about traffic, congestion and trucking

A central message of the highway building sales pitch is that traffic is ever-growing and ever worsening, and that we have no choice but to throw more money at expanded capacity.

The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) claims that traffic is every-rising, congestion is ever-worsening, and we’re always moving more and more trucks.

The reality, as revealed by ODOT’s own statistics is very different:  Post-pandemic, traffic levels are lower than before, time lost to traffic congestion is down almost 40 percent, and fewer trucks are on Oregon’s roads.

This lower level of demand means we don’t need to squander billions on added capacity, as ODOT is proposing.  Instead, measures to reduce or manage demand, like congestion pricing, could give us much faster travel times, at far lower cost.

For decades, highway advocates have described traffic as an ever-worsening menace. That messaging was very much on display in a recent legislative hearing in Oregon.  at a meeting of the Joint Subcommittee on Transportation Planning.  At its November 6, 2023 meeting, the Joint Subcommittee on Transportation Planning heard OregonDOT’s Brendan Finn, who presented a set of slides and made a number of key claims about future trends.  Chief among them, the following:

  • Traffic have already rebounded to pre-pandemic levels
  • Congestion will only get worse
  • Trucking will always increase

None of these claims is, in fact, true, according to data collected and reported by both ODOT and the federal government.

  • Travel is consistently below pre-pandemic levels, and its flat as the economy expands
    • Traffic on I-5 is down 7% below 2019 levels in 2023, and is lower than in 2021
    • Traffic on I-84 is down 3% below 2019 levels in 2023, and is lower than in 2021
  • Time lost to traffic congestion has declined by 40 percent in Portland
    • Congested lanes miles are down from 400 in 2019 to 256 today
    • Clark County vehicle hours of delay on SR 14, I-5 and I-205 are down 75% from 2019 in 2022
  • Average commute times are down 10 percent
    • Portland area commute times were 26.6 minutes in 2019
    • They are now 24.4 minutes
  • Trucking less than 20 years ago, and is declining
    • Truck movements across the Columbia River are down nearly 20% from 2005
    • Truck miles in Oregon are down 2.4% from 2019 levels, and down 3.9% for large trucks
    • Truck miles are expected to decline further (HCAS) and are trending below pre-Covid levels, something the ODOT economist admits he can’t explain.

The reality is, now nearly three years after the peak of the pandemic’s effect on daily travel, travel has not returned to pre-Covid patterns or levels.  Work at home has persisted.  Even though the Oregon economy has more than fully recovered the jobs and income lost in the pandemic recession, travel levels and patterns are different and lower than prior to the pandemic.  Work-at-home, at least a few days a week has become a “new normal” for a significant fraction of the Oregon workforce. Likewise, the Oregon economy (and national and global economies) have worked through the supply chain disruptions that plagued the transportation sector during, and just after the pandemic.

In short, claims that traffic is increasingly inexorably, that congestion is steadily getting worse, and we need more room for ever more trucks are flat out wrong.

ODOT’s fear-mongering predictions don’t really inform the policy debate about transportation.  They don’t explain why we have transportation issues, and what can be done to solve them.  They don’t shed any light, they only aim to generate heat.  The reason for these dire forecasts about traffic, congestion and trucking is to serve as a sales pitch for giving ODOT billions of dollars for road building.

ODOT is proposing to undertake a series of incredibly expensive highway widening projects, even as there appears to be a fundamental shift in travel patterns than undercuts the rationale for these projects.  ODOT is living in a world where Covid never happened, where work-from-home never happened, and where the long-term decline in per-capita driving in Oregon never happened.  It is proposing to three giant projects each of which cost more than $1 billion per mile (the IBR 5 miles and $7.5 billion; the Rose Quarter 1.5 miles and $1.9 billion, and the Abernethy Bridge (.5 miles and $622 million).  And it’s proposing to go deeply into debt to pay for each of these projects.

Traffic Levels are down, and staying down

What’s inarguable is that traffic levels are down in Oregon.  The key question is whether these declines persist in the post-pandemic era?  ODOT’s traffic counting staff have prepared a special report on exactly that subject which shows that traffic is not rebounding to pre-pandemic levels even three years after the height of the Covid shutdowns.  ODOT’s staff analysis of travel trends shows that traffic volumes have gone down and stayed down in the post pandemic era.  ODOT’s own traffic counting expert, Rebecca Knudsen reported in July 2023, that traffic levels on I-5 and I-84 in the Portland area were still below pre-pandemic levels in 2023, and were not increasing above 2022 or 2021 levels.  In a document entitled Pandemic Impacts on Future Transportation Planning: Implications for Long Range Travel Forecasts Knudsen reported:

Source: OregonDOT, July 2023

This pattern holds for Portland’s busiest highways.  Current traffic volumes on I-84 in the Portland region are about 5% lower than 2019 overall, weekday volumes are about 3%;  Traffic volumes on I-5 in the Portland region are currently about 6% lower than 2019 overall, weekday volumes are about 7% lower

Traffic congestion is down, and staying down.

ODOT periodically prepares a statewide “congestion report.”  Its latest report, released earlier this year, confirms that congestion in Oregon isn’t growing.  In fact, its declined significantly, even as the state economy grows rapidly following the pandemic.


Table 9 reports 2021 data presented in Figures 17 and 18, but also includes 2019 data to illustrate the difference pre- and post-pandemic. Statewide congested lane miles were 35% lower in 2021 than 2019. The largest decline was in the Willamette Valley. Portland Metro had a 38% decrease in congested lane miles, shifting from 400 congested lane miles in 2019 to 246 in 2021. (Page 27, emphasis added.)


ODOT has a “key performance measure” for statewide traffic performance that it provides routinely to the Oregon Transportation Commission, and which is supposed to guide policy.  This measure shows that Oregon traffic congestion is down 38 percent in 2021 compared to pre-covid (2019 levels).  ODOT is doing dramatically better than its goal. The number of congested lane miles statewide has declined from nearly 500 in 2019 to 322 in 2021.

Oregon’s Portland area data is confirmed by similar data gathered by the Washington State Department of Transportation.  WSDOT’s Mobility Dashboard reports that traffic congestion is down sharply in Clark County with a persistent and sustained decline in congestion-related travel delays.  According to WSDOT data, total vehicle hours of delay in Clark County’s three principal roadways  are down more than 75 percent from pre-Covid (2019) levels.

Vehicle Delay, 1000s of hours (Clark County)

I-5 I-205 SR 14      All
2019                 104,350        107,276         11,135        222,761
2022                   21,542          28,170           2,409          52,121
Change                   -79%          -74%        -78%          -77%

Sourrce:  WSDOT, Mobility Dashboard

Commute times are down 10 percent from pre-Pandemic Levels

Lower levels of traffic and less congestion are showing up in reduced commute times for all workers.  Census data confirm that the average commute trip in the Portland metropolitan area is about 2 minutes 20 seconds faster now than it was in 2019. The average Portland area commuter spends 2.2 minutes less time traveling to work each day according to the latest Census data, compared to the period before the pandemic.  In 2019, the average resident spent 26.6 minutes traveling to work (one way); in 2021, the average resident spent 24.4 minutes. (Census Bureau, American Community Survey). These data actually understate total time savings, because they only represent travel times for workers who still regularly work outside the home; the commute data do not include the time savings for those who work at home.

Truck freight is lower than twenty years ago and is declining

Highway boosters love to assert that unless we expand highways, our economy will somehow grind to a halt.  But the truth is, in the Internet era, and an economy shifting to smaller and lighter products and more services, and ever greater efficiency in production and distribution, truck freight movements have peaked and are declining.  Oregon’s economic growth, in particular, has de-coupled from goods movement.  ODOT’s testimony claims that truck freight in the Portland area will increase 57 percent in the next two decades, and implies we need to expand highway capacity to match.

ODOT actually has detailed data on truck freight movement in Oregon—data that wasn’t presented at the November 6 hearing.  That data shows that statewide, truck freight is down 2.6 percent from pre-pandemic levels, and is decreasing, and is expected to decrease further.  Oregon DOT’s corridor-level data show the number of trucks crossing the Columbia River today is down more than 20 percent from 2007 levels.  ODOT’s just-released revenue forecasts shows a decline in freight movement, contrary to ODOT’s earlier forecasts that truck freight would continually increase.  One reason that the recent Highway Cost Allocation Study (HCAS) shows trucks “overpaid” their share of highway expenses is that truck freight has grown much more slowly than ODOT projected.

ODOT’s statewide congestion report tracks truck mileage by weight class.  The latest report  concludes that truck VMT in Oregon is down below 2019 levels, and is down more sharply for large trucks.

Truck Vehicle Miles 2019, and 2021
Class 2019 2022 Change
Medium              958              961 0.3%
Large           2,213           2,126 -3.9%
Total           3,171           3,087 -2.6%
Source:  ODOT, 2022 Statewide Congestion Overview

What is true statewide is also true in major corridors.  One key corridor is I-5 and I-205 across the Columbia River.  ODOT’s vehicle count data show that the number of trucks crossing the Columbia River is down almost almost 20 percent since 2006.

ODOT’s forecasts of truck freight have been consistently and wildly overstated

ODOT has long predicted steady increases in trucking.  And it has long been wrong. In 2011, ODOT adopted the “Oregon Freight Plan”. It called for the volume of truck freight to increase 96 percent in 25 years, between 2010 and 2035.  This amounts to an annual rate of increase of 2.2 percent per year.  We are now more than half way through that period, and truck freight has gone down; between 2007 and 2022, truck freight volumes declined at an average annual rate of -0.2 percent per year.

ODOT’s latest financial reports concede that truck traffic is both below expectations, and is expected to decline further.  Both ODOT’s biennial Highway Cost Allocation Study (HCAS) and its October 2023 Transportation Revenue Forecast point to a decline in truck travel in Oregon.  ODOT’s own economist admits its modeling failed to accurately predict the decline in in trucking, which is now below its pre-Covid-forecast.

ODOT’s latest transportation revenue forecast reports a dramatic decline in weight-mile transactions.  ODOT’s April 2023 forecast predicted that weight mile transactions would exceed 4.6 million (orange line), instead they’ve fallen to 4.3 million (blue line), and are now below the department’s pre-pandemic (2019) forecast (green line).

ODOT’s economist is at a loss to explain this decline:

Unfortunately, the prior forecast and our current forecast model do not adequately predict the drop we are currently seeing in the weight-mile transactions. This is concerning, as the forecast model has traditionally done a good job of predicting trucking activity. The last two quarters since the prior forecast have shown a significant drop, bringing us back in line with our pre-pandemic forecast.
(emphasis added)

This clear trend puts the lie to inflated forecasts claiming truck growth would always increase.  In 2010, Metro predicted that truck freight in the Portland area would double by 2035.   In fact, as we’ve seen truck freight has actually declined.

Why this matters

The alarmist warnings that an inexorable tide of traffic will condemn us to permanent traffic congestion is standard fare from highway boosters.  The “predict and provide” approach is a way of rationalizing capacity increases as a way to avoid congestion.  But added capacity has invariably simply generated more travel, more sprawling development patterns and more costly, congested roadways.  The process is so well documented by study-after-study that its called the “Fundamental Law of Road Congestion.”

State highway departments invariably overstate future travel growth and congestion to sell highways.  The State Smart Transportation Institute has cataloged this behavior, which has been going on for decades.  No matter what the actual trend is in transportation, highway agencies predict “hockey stick” growth trends.

What recent Oregon data shows is that traffic increases aren’t inexorable or unavoidable.  Since the pandemic, we’ve fundamentally changed our travel patterns.  If ODOT officials were serious about reducing congestion, they’d be working to understand what about the past few years has enabled the reduction in traffic and congestion.  Clearly, it has not been because of expanded capacity.  Instead, the experience of the past few years shows the efficacy of managing demand.  We saw big reductions in traffic congestion when more people started working at home—and those reductions and travel time savings have persisted.  While initially it was due to the pandemic restrictions, workers and firms have embraced greater flexibility, and work from home is the new normal for a significant segment of the workforce.  The underlying point is that measures that reduce or manage travel demand are the most effective means of reducing congestion.

What that should signal to ODOT and Oregon policy makers is the urgency of adopting a comprehensive congestion pricing system for the Portland area.  Congestion pricing would directly manage demand.  And critically, congestion pricing would enable us to greatly reduce congestion and improve travel times without spending billions on expanding highway capacity.  ODOT’s own analysis of the I-5 Rose Quarter project showed that congestion pricing would be more effective in eliminating congestion and reducing traffic and pollution than spending $1.9 billion widening the roadway.  In addition, congestion pricing makes urban freeways work better and carry more traffic:  by keeping traffic flowing smoothly, pricing avoids traffic jams that actually reduce capacity.

Highway departments like ODOT view congestion data as a gimmick to sell roadway expansions, nothing more.  When states actually chalk up big reductions in congestion (invariably, not because they’ve built more highways), there are crickets.  OregonDOT and its peers are uninterested in learning from places that actually reduce congestion.  When data provider Tom-Tom reported that Portland recorded the biggest decrease in congestion of any US metro area in 2019, ODOT said . . . nothing.  At the time, we observed:

There’s a calculated asymmetry here: You can bet that if Portland had the biggest increase in congestion per Tom-Tom, it would be a front page story on the Oregonian, and a regularly repeated talking point by the Oregon Department of Transportation. If you’re a highway engineer, or traffic reporter, drawing attention to the terrible (and worsening) nature of congestion is a big part of the way you justify your existence.  But good news, it seems, is no news.  If there were any science or objectivity here, you’d think that the media would be celebrating this success (and praising the policies that led to it), and that the transportation agency would be looking to do more of whatever it was that made the congestion numbers improve.

The reason for this asymmetry, as we’ve suggested before at City Observatory, is that for all their bloviating to the contrary, highway departments really don’t care about reducing traffic congestion. Traffic congestion statistics and rankings are simply convenient public relations fodder for selling the next big highway construction project. If they were serious about reducing traffic congestion, these highway engineers would have looked seriously at the big declines in traffic congestion in the early part of this decade (thanks to higher gas prices), and the decline in traffic generated by tolling congested roads, like I-65 in Louisville, and moved aggressively to implement congestion pricing, which is the only strategy that’s been shown to be effective.  But building things, not solving traffic problems, is really their priority.


Diversion: IBR tolls will gridlock I-205

The proposed I-5 Interstate Bridge Replacement (IBR) Project will be paid for in part by $2.80 to $4.30 tolls charged to travelers.  These tolls will cause tens of thousands of vehicles per day to stop crossing the I-5 bridge; and most traffic will divert to the parallel I-205 bridge, producing gridlock, according to IBR consultant reports and Metro travel demand modeling.

OregonDOT and Washington State DOT officials have offered vague and largely meaningless claims about potential diversion from tolling the I-5 bridge, and failed to disclose actual analyses done this subject by their consultants.

City Observatory obtained—via public records requests—toll revenue estimates prepared by IBR contractor Stantec, and travel demand modeling prepared by Metro for the IBR project.  These studies show that tolling I-5 will dramatically reduce I-5 traffic, with most vehicles diverting to I-205.

Tolling I-5 will cause traffic levels on I-5, currently about 140,000 vehicles per day will fall by almost half, and will permanently depress I-5 traffic

Tolling I-5 will cause more than 30,000 vehicles to divert to the parallel Interstate 205 bridge, likely producing gridlock.

The new toll revenue projections echo exactly the findings of studies for the earlier carbon copy of this same project (then called the Columbia River Crossing) as well as the experience of tolled bridges and highways elsewhere in the country.

Highway agency claims that investment grade forecasts are unlikely “worst case scenarios” are untrue:  Traffic levels routinely fall below levels predicted in investment grade forecasts, as happened with the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, and many other similar projects.

IBR traffic projections and diversion estimates are a DOT state secret

Although repeatedly asked about diversion, WSDOT and ODOT officials have steadfastly refused to share their toll and traffic estimates with the public. At a November 27, 2023 meeting of the joint Oregon and Washington legislative committees overseeing the project, IBR officials offered only the vaguest possible description of diversion.

Their slide show and testimony omitted the fact that IBR and its consultants have already prepared detailed estimates of likely diversion.

After filing a public records request, we obtained toll-related financial projections prepared by IBR consultants that show the estimated tolls that will be charged, the amount of revenue tolls would raise, and the average level of traffic using the I-5 bridge under tolls.  The appendix to this report shows “Scenario A” of the project’s financial analysis, prepared by consultants WSP using traffic projections made by another consultant, Stantec.  Stantec’s work is a so-called “Level 2” study of traffic levels.  We converted the annual data reported in these financial reports to average weekday traffic.

Previously secret IBR “Level 2” traffic studies show massive diversion

The financial report indicates that the IBR will begin charging tolls on the existing I-5 bridge in 2026, just as the project starts construction.  This “pre-completion tolling” will start out an an average of $2.80 per passenger car (peak tolls will be higher; off-peak tolls lower).  Average tolls rise each year and will be $3.30 per car in 2033 which the new bridge opens, and will rise to $4.34 in 2045.  (Again, peak hour tolls will be even higher).

Tolling will depress traffic on I-5 and cause diversion to I-205.  The following chart shows the predicted daily level of trips across the I-5 bridge according to the IBR’s published environmental analysis. Currently about 140,000 vehicles per day cross the I-5 Columbia River Bridges  The red line on the chart shows what Stantec predicts will happen to daily I-5 traffic when tolls are implemented in 2026. Traffic  will fall by almost half, to only about 70,000 vehicles per day.

These high toll levels will prompt many users to avoid the I-5 bridge.  Some may shift to transit, or avoid traveling across the Columbia River.  But most of this traffic will shift to the I-205 bridge, which is not tolled. Metro, the regional’s transportation planning agency has used its regional travel demand model to estimate traffic diversion under various tolling scenarios.  On average, it finds that about 55 percent of diverted traffic will instead cross the I-205 bridge.  This means that tolling I-5 will add more than 30,000 vehicles per day to I-205.

The “Level 2” study confirms the diversion estimates generated a decade ago.

The results of the 2023 Stantec Level 2 study confirm the results obtained in the CDM Smith Investment Grade Analysis for the Columbia River Crossing a decade ago.  In 2013, the Oregon and Washington highway departments paid CDM Smith about $1.4 million to produce an “investment grade” study that would qualify the project for federal loans and private bond financing.  CDM Smith’s investment grade analysis (IGA), assumed that pre-completion tolling would start in 2019, and when it did, traffic on the I-5 bridge would fall precipitously, and remain below historical levels indefinitely.  The CDM Smith study also concluded that the bulk of this traffic would shift to the I-205 bridge.


Louisville, Kentucky built the equivalent of the IBR, and tolling produced massive traffic declines and diversion

This is exactly what has happened with comparable tolled projects.  A decade ago, Louisville Kentucky built a project extremely similar to the I-5 bridge replacement, doubling the capacity of I-65 across the Ohio River from 6 lanes to 12 lanes.  It imposed a modest toll of $1-$2 for crossings, and this had the result that traffic on the expanded I-65 bridges fell from about 130,000 vehicles per day (nearly identical to the current I-5 bridges) to about 65,000 vehicles per day.  As a result, the expanded bridge capacity is going almost entirely unused.  Traffic cameras show that even at 5pm on a typical weekday afternoon, the bridges are almost empty.


I-65 crossing the Ohio River at Louisville at rush hour (November 3, 2021; 5:34PM)


Here’s the average daily traffic count on I-65, according to data tabulated by the Indiana Department of Transportation.  In the years just prior to the tolling, traffic was in the 135,000 to 140,000 vehicles per day level.  But as soon as tolling went into effect, traffic dropped to barely 60,000 vehicles per day (with a very slight further decline due to Covid-19 in 2020).


Investment Grade Forecasts are not “worst case” estimates

The staff of the IBR has claimed that the investment grade analyses are financial “worst case” scenarios that will never be born out in practice.  That’s simply false.  The federal government and bond rating agencies require the preparation of independent, investment grade forecasts because state highway department forecasts are unreliable and are generally dramatic over-estimates.  Investment grade forecasts are more realistic, but also tend to be over-optimistic; they are not described by their authors as “worst-case” scenarios, and as we’ll see, traffic levels regularly come in below levels forecast by investment grade analyses.

First, to be sure, highway department forecasts wildly overstate future traffic growth.  A comprehensive review of two decades of traffic growth projections prepared by state transportaton departments, the Federal Highway Administration and other groups, like AASHTO (the highway agency lobby), shows that they continually predict “hockey-stick” growth patterns that have never been realized in practice.

While investment grade analyses are not as egregiously bad as these hockey-stick forecasts, they tend to consistently over-estimate actual traffic levels.  The problem of over-estimating traffic levels (and associated toll revenues) is endemic.  Bond rating agency Fitch issued a scathing report on toll forecast errors.  They warned that over-estimating revenue is common in the industry and is a key cause of financial problems for toll-financed projects.  The Fitch message, summarized in the trade publication, Toll Roads News, is clear and stark:

They [Fitch] call demand forecasting “a key vulnerability,” adding: “The probability of over-estimation remains high despite decades of experience with forecasting demand on transport projects. Many greenfield projects over the years across many jurisdictions have suffered from this… While other risks have been manifested in many cases, defaults on debt have largely been driven by under-performance relative to original projections.”
(emphasis added)

Investment grade forecasts also routinely suffer from optimism bias, as demonstrated by international expert (and Oregon State Treasury adviser) Robert Bain‘s comprehensive review of industry practice:

 “The standard of some traffic and revenue studies, supporting infrastructure investments worth billions of dollars, is truly appalling,” Bain said. “Forecasts are commonly used to ‘sell’ deals to potential investors, insurers or rating agencies — so they are exposed to manipulation.”

One need look no further than the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Washington State, the nearest highway project that has been subjected to an investment grade forecast.  Wilbur Smith (the predecessor of CDM Smith) prepared the investment grade forecast for the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.  It predicted that traffic on the bridge would grow at an annual rate of 1.7 percent per year after the capacity of the bridge was doubled.  In fact, through 2019 (i.e. prior to the pandemic) actual traffic growth was only about a third that fast (traffic up 0.6 percent).  The result is that toll revenues are dramatically lower than projections, necessitating repeated bail outs from state highway funds.

Over-predicting traffic is commonplace for toll road studies, even those done for “investment grade” forecasts. Streetsblog reported that:

In 2012, the Reston (Virginia) Citizens Association completed a study [PDF] examining traffic projections provided by engineering firm Wilbur Smith (the company that did the very wrong Indiana Toll Road projections, now called CDM Smith). The group collected data from 26 toll road projects on which Wilbur Smith had produced the traffic projections. During the first five years that were forecast, traffic projections overshot actual traffic every single year, and by an average of 109 percent, according to the report.

In short, investment grade toll revenue forecasts are not as wildly unrealistic as the promotional forecasts produced by state highway agencies, but they still consistently over-estimate traffic volumes and toll revenues on newly tolled-roadways.  They are decidedly not unrealistic worst-case scenarios as portrayed by IBR officials.  As a practical matter, the results of the IGA’s confirm that overall traffic levels will be lower, and diversion to un-tolled parallel routes (in this case I-205) will be higher than acknowledged in IBR’s promotional forecasts.  That will lead to vastly different community, environmental and economic impacts that portrayed in the project’s environmental impact statement.

Appendix:  Scenario A Financial Analysis (disclosed pursuant to public records request)

Exaggerated Benefits, Omitted Costs: The Interstate Bridge Boondoggle

A $7.5 billion highway boondoggle doesn’t meet the basic test of cost-effectiveness

The Interstate Bridge Project is a value-destroying proposition:  it costs more to build than it provides in economic benefits

Federal law requires that highway projects be demonstrated to be “cost-effective” in order to qualify for funding.  The US Department of Transportation requires applicants to submit a “benefit-cost” analysis, that shows that the economic benefits of a project exceed its costs. We take a close, critical look at the benefit-cost analysis prepared for the proposed $7.5 billion Interstate Bridge Replacement project between Portland and Vancouver.

City Observatory’s analysis of the Interstate Bridge Replacement Benefit-Cost Analysis (IBR BCA) shows that it is riddled with errors and unsubstantiated claims and systematically overstates potential benefits and understates actual costs. . 

  • It dramatically understates the actual cost of the project, both by mis-stating initial capital costs, and by entirely omitting operation and maintenance and periodic capital costs.
  • The construction period is under-estimated, which likely understates capital costs, and overstates benefits 
  • In addition, the study also omits the toll charges paid by road users from its definition of project costs, in clear violation of federal benefit-cost guidelines. 
  • In addition, the IBR BCA study dramatically inflates estimated benefits. 
  • It uses an incorrect occupancy estimate to inflate the number of travelers benefiting from the project. 
  • The IBR BCA analysis also presents inflated estimates of safety benefits, based an incomplete and un-documented crash analysis. 
  • In addition, ODOT’s study fails to separately present the benefits and costs of the project’s tolling and capacity expansion components, and omits an analysis of the distribution of benefits and costs among different demographic groups.

A correct evaluation of this project shows that its costs exceed its benefits by a wide margin.  What this means is that the proposed freeway widening is not cost-effective; not only is it not something that qualifies for federal funding, it also is a demonstrably wasteful, value-destroying expenditure of public funds.  The amount of money that the federal government, the States of Oregon and Washington, and highway users would pay in tolls, exceeds by a factor of more than two the actual economic benefits that would accrue to a subset of highway users.  This is a project that would make us worse off economically—exactly the kind of project that the cost-effectiveness standard is established to prevent.

Benefits are overstated

ODOT and WSDOT claim that the present value of benefits from the IBR project amount to more than $4 billion; nearly all of these benefits are attributed to travel time savings, congestion cost reductions and seismic resilience, and reduced crash losses.  ODOT’s estimates of both travel related savings and crash reductions lack documentation.

Travel Benefits:  The IBR BCA claims that the project will produce $2.4 billion in travel time benefits.  ODOT’s estimates are plagued with errors and a lack of documentation

  • Travel benefits are minuscule to individual travelers—averaging about 20 seconds in a typical five-mile trip, according to the BCA.  These savings are imperceptible to individual travelers and are likely to be of no significant economic value.
  • The estimates use the wrong value for peak hour vehicle occupancy, exaggerating peak travelers by 13 percent.  The BCA assumes 1.67 passengers per vehicle while USDOT guidelines prescribe a figure of 1.48 passengers per vehicle.
  • The project fails to document the diversion of traffic to the parallel I-205 bridge as a result of charging tolls on I-5; this will cause longer trips for 33,000 diverted vehicles per day, and will increase congestion and travel times for the 220,000 persons crossing the I-205 bridge.  These costs will largely offset the travel time savings purported to accrue to travelers in the project area.

The Benefit Cost Analysis concedes that tolling the I-5 bridges will divert traffic to the I-205 bridge, but the project’s benefit cost analysis only models the effect of the project in the study area.  The added cost, pollution and other effects on the I-205 area are not included in the benefit cost analysis.


The Benefit Cost Analysis admits:

The Build scenario assumes tolling for the highway river crossing. The added cost from inclusion of tolls causes a reduction in I-5 auto trips as people shift to transit, use the alternative I-205 crossing, or change their destination to avoid the crossing

As described, this benefit-cost analysis is highly selective:  it counts beneficial time savings in the project’s “study area” but ignores the costs in added travel distances, travel times and congestion that will occur outside the study area when traffic diverts to avoid tolls.

Resiliency Benefits:  The IBR BCA claims savings for lives lost in a potential earthquake, savings on the cost of a replacement bridge, and added savings in traveler delay in the event that the bridges collapse in an earthquake.  All these estimates are exaggerated, including probability of a major seismic event, likelihood of collapse, fatality rate in the event of a seismic event, number of persons on the bridge at the time of an event, the cost of replacing the bridge, and the scale of added travel that would result from traffic disruption if the bridge collapses.  

Safety Benefits:  The IBR BCA claims that the project will reduce crashes on I-5 and will produce benefits with a present value of approximately $53 million.  The IBR-BCA asserts that it has used the ISATe model to predict a 17 percent decline in crashes in the project area. Also, it has not documented what features of the project produce the supposed ISATe benefits, and it has failed to calibrate the ISATe model for I-5, and the ISATe methodology can’t be used to accurately compute crash reduction on highways with ramp-metering, which I-5 has. 

Costs are understated

The IBR BCA  claim that the present value of the initial capital costs of this project are $2.7 billion.  That is a significant understatement.  The project’s construction cost, according to other IBR BCA documents is as much as $7.5 billion.  IBR BCA’s failure to comprehensively account for project costs violates federal benefit cost guidance which requires that costs include “the full cost of the project. . . regardless of who bears the burden . . including state local and private partners . . ”  This should include tolls paid by users.

Costs Exceed Benefits by a Wide Margin

After we correct IBR BCA’s study for under-counted costs, and unsubstantiated benefit claims, the project’s benefit-cost ratio falls to dramatically less than one, which is the minimum standard for meeting the statutory requirement that the project be cost-effective.  Our corrected estimates show that the actual cost of the project ranges as high as $5 billion. The actual benefits of the project, are roughly $2 billion.  This means that the project has a benefit-cost ratio of between 0.4 and 0.3, well below the minimum threshold of 1.0.  The correct analysis shows that the I-5 Bridge Replacement project is a value-destroying endeavor:  it costs users and taxpayers far more than it provides to the public in benefits.  It is not cost-effective, and should not be approved by FHWA.

Failing to disaggregate benefits and ignoring distributional impacts

Federal regulations require that a benefit-analysis separately report the benefits and costs of independent elements of a project.  This is to prevent a prospective applicant from combining an ineligible project (with costs that exceed benefits) with an eligible project (with a positive benefit-cost ratio) in order to get a larger amount of federal funds.  The IBR project consists of at least two elements with independent utility:  a plan to toll I-5, and the proposed widening of the highway, intersections and approaches.  Nearly all of the travel time benefits associated with the project result from tolling, according to IBR BCA’s own analysis.  Appraised separately, the tolling would have a far more favorable benefit-cost ratio than the highway expansion. To comply with federal requirements, IBR BCA should produce separate benefit cost estimates for each component of the project.

Federal regulations strongly encourage applicants to examine the distribution of benefits and costs among different segments of the population.  IBR BCA included no distributional analysis in its benefit-cost study.  Nearly all of the travel time, and congestion reduction benefits accrue to peak hour travelers.  Yet a majority of the the cost of tolls are likely to be paid by travelers who use the I-5 during off-peak hours; these off-peak travelers get no travel time benefits.  In effect, they are made worse off:  they have to pay a toll even though they get no better service than under the no-build scenario.

Conflict of interest and risk of fraud

The benefit-cost analysis is more than a mere formality:  it is a legal requirement for the $7.5 billion project to qualify for federal aid.  False representations made in the IBR BCA could represent fraud. It is concerning that the benefit-cost analysis is prepared by a private sector contractor with a direct financial interest in the construction of the IBR. The Benefit-Cost Narrative report indicates that the report was “Prepared by WSP.” Financial records obtained from the IBR project pursuant to a public records request show that WSP has current contracts to perform paid work on the Interstate Bridge Replacement Project valued at $76,282,807.03. Indeed, WSP is the single largest contractor for the project. In the event that federal funding is not forthcoming, it is unlikely that the project will proceed, and WSP will lose this lucrative source of income. WSP is not, and cannot be, an independent and objective evaluator of the benefits and costs of this project. It has a blatant conflict of interest, which is not disclosed.

City Observatory Analysis of Interstate Bridge Project Benefit-Cost Analysis


The ten lane freeway hiding in Rose Quarter Plans

Secret ODOT plans obtained by City Observatory show ODOT is planning a ten-lane freeway through the Rose Quarter

Though the agency claims its “just adding one auxiliary lane” in each direction, the I-5 Rose Quarter project is engineered with a 160-foot wide footprint, enough for 10 full travel lanes and extra wide shoulders. 

In places the I-5 Rose Quarter project would be as much as 250 feet wide.  ODOT’s plans are to double or triple the width of the roadway from its current 82 feet.

ODOT plans are drawn to conceal the massive width, with cartoons and misleading “Not to scale” drawings.  The project’s 2019 Environmental Assessment implied the roadway would be only 126 feet wide, but these newly obtained plans confirm it will be vastly wider.

Once built, ODOT could re-stripe this massive roadway for 10 lanes in an afternoon.

The agency has not disclosed the true size of the project, and its Environmental Analysis doesn’t consider the traffic, pollution and safety effects of a ten lane structure.

The project’s massive width—not its covers—are the real reason for the project’s huge expense, which has exploded from $450 million in 2017 to an estimated $1.9 billion today.

ODOT has ignored its own international expert consulting engineers who called for a much narrower roadway, and alternating refuges in the tunnel section to minimize expense.

For years, we’ve been pointing out the lengths that the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) has gone to in concealing the width of it’s I-5 Rose Quarter “Improvement” Project.  ODOT claims that it is merely adding one “auxiliary lane” to the freeway.

But documents—newly obtained by City Observatory from a public records request—show that the I-5 Rose Quarter Freeway will be as 160 feet wide, and in places much as 250 feet wide as it slashes through Northeast Portland.  That’s about two to three times wider than the existing 82 foot roadway.

The proposed Rose Quarter I-5 mainline is 160 feet wide, enough for a ten-lane freeway

As it passes under Broadway and Weidler streets, the main stem of the widened I-5 freeway (excluding the separate on- and off ramps) is a full 160-feet wide according to the previously unreleased ODOT drawings.  The ODOT diagram purports to show the number of lanes and the width of shoulders, but if you look closely, there’s something fishy going on here.  First, the fine print at the bottom of the drawing says “No Scale” which is an admission that despite the measurements shown, this is not a true scaled drawing of the project. That becomes clear when you start comparing the measurements indicated for the lane and shoulder markings with the overall width of the project.  Let’s take a closer look at the plans.

Both the Northbound and Southbound clear-span areas is about 81 feet wide.  According to ODOT’s labeling there are just three 12-foot wide travel lanes in each of these 81 foot openings, meaning that 45 feet of the width under the span isn’t actually being used for travel lanes and is available for shoulders.  We’ve added the red annotations to the ODOT diagram below.

ODOT drawing obtained via public records request (red annotations by City Observatory).

Despite ODOT’s misleading and incomplete labeling of this diagram, its apparent that the project will easily allow construction of a 10-lane freeway (with five through travel lanes in each direction) at Broadway-Weidler.  We’ve further annotated the ODOT drawing to show full 12-foot travel lanes and ten-foot inside and outside shoulders.

ODOT drawing obtained via public records request (red annotations by City Observatory).

ODOT’s own consultants, the international design firm ARUP recommended narrower lanes (11 feet) and much narrower shoulders (as little as three feet) to minimize project costs.  Elsewhere in the project, ODOT is using 11-foot through-travel lanes and narrower shoulders.  If it used followed standard industry practice here, ODOT could stripe the freeway for twelve-travel lanes, and urban-standard freeway shoulders.

The freeway will be as much as 250 feet wide

While the mainstream of the freeway at Broadway-Weidler will be 160 feet wide, the project is actually even wider at its North end.  As it crosses under Hancock Street, the I-5 freeway will be 250 feet wide—more than three times wider than the current roadway, and more the twice as wide as depicted in the project’s 2019 Environmental Assessment.  ODOT provided an image of the project that provides some key details, including the fact that the two spans of the overpass will be 130 feet and 120 feet wide.  On this section, the freeway consists of two southbound offramp lanes, six travel lanes (three in each direction) and two northbound on-ramp lanes, plus considerable additional room for shoulders as well as other space which is not labeled (more on that in a moment).

ODOT drawings: 2019 Environmental Assessment (top), and via public records request (bottom).


The Rose Quarter project  so  expensive because its too wide

The reason the Rose Quarter project’s budget has exploded from $450 million just six years ago, to as much as $1.9 billion today is because of the bloated size of the proposed roadway. Building a roadway that is two to three times wider than thecurrent I-5 freeway is the primary driver of high costs, according to ODOT’s consultants ARUP. The overly wide freeway requires enormous beams to support the lengthy overpasses: the girders (BT84) for the overpasses have to be about 7 feet tall.  To accommodate the wider footprint, and provide sufficient vertical clearance over the roadway, ODOT will have to excavate an enormous area, and dig deeper to lower the level of the freeway (notice the brown area to be removed on the Broadway-Weidler diagrams). And while ODOT wants to blame the covers for the high cost of the project, its actually the grossly oversized width of the freeway that drives up the cost of both the roadway, and the covers: a narrower freeway would be vastly cheaper to cover. As part of the Interstate Bridge project, WSDOT is proposing to build an acre-sized cover over I-5 to connect downtown Vancouver to historic Fort Vancouver for a cost of less than $40 million.

ODOT has actively concealed the width of the Rose Quarter Project

ODOT has undertaken multiple and sustained efforts to hide the actual width of the highway widening.  They’ve falsely repeated the Orwellian claim that they’re adding a single auxiliary lane in each direction.

They’ve published false and misleading “not to scale” illustrations that understate the true width of the project as part of the federally required Environmental Assessment.

Instead of presenting the actual plans, ODOT has repeatedly published misleading, not-to-scale illustrations purporting to show the width of the project.  The original 2019 Environmental Assessment contained this drawing.  It didn’t show the actual overall width of the project, but labeled lane and shoulder widths that together totalled 127 feet

Misleading ODOT illustrations from 2019 Environmental Assessment

In the Supplemental Environmental Assessment released late in 2022, ODOT updated and repeated this same tactic, producing two new illustration).  It shows the existing alignment and the proposed allignment, as follows.  The fine print at the bottom says “not to scale), but the diagram make the proposed project look narrower than the existing roadway.



City Observatory and others have long pointed out that ODOT is planning a much wider roadway at the Rose Quarter than it lets on.  In 2020, the Oregon Transportation Commission directed ODOT staff to provide City Observatory with information about the actual width of the freeway. When pressed to provide details, and actual overall width measurements, ODOT provided elliptical and disingenuous responses to specific written questions asking for a statement of the project’s actual width.  Here is an image of ODOT’s 2021 written response to a question asking the width of the project.

There is not a single number mentioned.  Even when explicitly directed by the Oregon Transportation Commission to say how wide the road would be, ODOT officials dissembled and obfuscated, failing to reveal information that was clearly known to them.

In 2021, City Observatory obtained, via Freedom of Information Act requests and other sources, plans produced by ODOT showing that the project was actually designed to be 160 feet wide.  These internal documents date back to 2016, and show a decision on project width was locked in by ODOT staff for years–just not revealed to the public.

Now, the latest plans for the Rose Quarter project show that it will be, at least in places, more than 250 feet wide.  As before, these are documents that have not been released to the public until ODOT was forced to provide them via a public records request.  In July, 2023, ODOT initially insisted on being paid more than $2,000 to release these records, asserting that their release to the group No More Freeways was “not in the public interest.”  After an appeal to the Oregon Attorney General’s office, the records were released without charge.  ODOT continues to treat the actual size of this hugely expensive project as a state secret, something the public is not allowed to know.

ODOT’s persistent efforts to conceal the true width of the proposed I-5 Rose Quarter project are an attempt to cover up the reasons for the extraordinary cost increases and un-disclosed environmental impacts of this project.  A 160- to 250-foot wide roadway will further divide the neighborhood—repeating and aggravating the historic harms ODOT has inflicted on Albina.  The ten through lanes this widened roadway will enable will produce additional traffic and pollution, and it will pour this added traffic onto nearby city streets, creating safety problems and turning nearby areas into hostile, traffic-burdened places, inhospitable to people and new development.  ODOT has failed to look at a right-sized solution—simply capping the existing highway, or only widening it enough to accommodate the single additional auxiliary lane they say they want (something that could be accommodated in a roadway perhaps 24 feet wider than the existing 82-foot wide roadway).


The Week Observed, December 22, 2023

What City Observatory did this week

Bad data.  What appears, at first glance, to be a big decline in trip-making is really an object lesson in failing to read the footnotes.  Every five years or so, the US Department of Transportation produces the National Household Travel Survey (NHTS), which provides essential information about American travel patterns.  The latest data from the 2022 survey was just released, and the USDOT trumpeted its publication with a clever, but fundamentally flawed infographic.

US DOT claims that we went from making almost three and a half trips per person per day in 2017 to barely two trips per day in 2022. The problem is that the apparent decline in trip-making almost certainly has a lot more to do with a major change in the methodology of the NHTS since 2017.  The survey used to provide respondents with a “trip diary” to contemporaneously record daily travel.  The survey has since shifted to the web, and relies on after-the-fact recollections, which previous survey work has shown substantially under-report total trip making.  Unfortunately, that critical detail doesn’t appear in the infographic, which gives the inaccurate impression that one can directly compare the 2017 and 2022 data (You can’t).  The pandemic and work-from-home have undoubtedly triggered major changes in travel behavior.  It’s too bad the NHTS can’t tell us much about the size or permanence of these changes.

Must Read

Full disclosure:  Highway departments need to report their carbon footprint.  A key provision of the Inflation Reduction Act, which shovels hundreds of billions of dollars to states for infrastructure is direction to try to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  The US Department of Transportation has a new rule requiring state transportation departments to measure their greenhouse gases, and set goals for reducing emissions.  The goals are aspirational and toothless, but that hasn’t stopped a bunch of states from actively opposing the rule.

But as Kevin DeGood, of the Center for American Progress writes, you can’t solve a problem you don’t acknowledge:

The premise of the rule is simple: it’s nearly impossible to reduce something you don’t measure. Moreover, by measuring the greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles traveling on the National Highway System, states will be able to assess how different transportation projects and policies would affect climate emissions. Reporting this data to US DOT will allow for some much-needed public accountability.

What this amounts to, in reality, is simply climate change denial.  Highway agencies don’t want to admit that cars and driving are responsible for climate change, even though transportation is now the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Where are the 15 minute neighborhoods?  Notwithstanding the hysterical pushback from the far right, most people instinctively understand the convenience and economy of living in a place where you can take care of most of your daily needs without being required to drive a car.  Fifteen-minute living is a planning goal for many, but has is actually already a feature of some of the most desirable neighborhoods in any city.  Geographer Nat Henry has a detailed analysis of Seattle neighborhoods, showing which ones offer 15 minute living.  Significantly, Henry’s work estimates the fraction of households in each neighborhood that can walk to common destinations within 15 minutes.  It’s all or nearly all residents in a handful of dense, central neighborhoods, and none or vanishingly few in more outlying places.

Henry’s analysis is both transparent and flexible:  It spells out the criteria used to determine what destinations are within walking distance, and allows the end user to select for other important destinations (like light rail stations and grocery stores, restaurants and parks).  Henry’s interactive application generates maps (like the one shown above) and can answer basic questions, like, how many residents live within 15 minutes of a supermarket. This is the kind of tool that can demystify the concept of 15 minute living–and hopefully, defuse the silly and extreme opposition.

Sahm Rules.  At City Observatory, we mostly focus on urban economics.  But urban economies swim either with or against the tides of the larger macro-economy.  The rate of inflation, the unemployment rate and interest rates all play out directly in urban labor markets and housing markets.  As we emerged from Covid pandemic, there were serious (but temporary) supply disruptions (coupled with opportunism) that triggered a spike in inflation.  Many economists, apparently drawing on the experience of the late 1970s argued that a recession was either a necessary or desirable way to break an emerging inflationary spiral.  A handful fo economists, including Claudia Sahm, took a contrary view, arguing that the surge in inflation was short-lived, not deep seated.

The experts who say “we need a recession” or big payroll numbers might be a “nightmare” are those who warned that the Rescue Plan would spark high inflation. Inflation did pick up a lot. They were right about the direction. But, while the Rescue Plan played some role, it is not the reason for the inflation. Covid and the war in Ukraine caused massive, ongoing disruptions once you accept that it’s time to back away from the Phillips Curve.

The record of the past year–with a steady decline in inflation to the 2 percent target set by the Fed, and continued job growth and record low unemployment–shows Sahm was right.  Engineering a “soft-landing” and avoiding a recession has been a blessing in 2023, and may set the stage for further improvement in the coming year.  If you want macroeconomic analysis that is  incisive, clear, and for this year quite prescient, you should read Claudia Sahm’s work.

Happy Holidays—See you next year!

The Week Observed will return in January 2024.

The Week Observed, December 15, 2023

What City Observatory did this week

Exaggerated Benefits, Omitted Costs: The Interstate Bridge Boondoggle.  A $7.5 billion highway boondoggle doesn’t meet the basic test of cost-effectiveness.  The Interstate Bridge Project is a value-destroying proposition:  it costs more to build than it provides in economic benefits

Federal law requires that highway projects be demonstrated to be “cost-effective” in order to qualify for funding.  The US Department of Transportation requires applicants to submit a “benefit-cost” analysis, that shows that the economic benefits of a project exceed its costs. We take a close, critical look at the benefit-cost analysis prepared for the proposed  Interstate Bridge Replacement (IBR) project between Portland and Vancouver.

City Observatory’s analysis of the Interstate Bridge Replacement Benefit-Cost Analysis (IBR BCA) shows that it is riddled with errors and unsubstantiated claims and systematically overstates potential benefits and understates actual costs.

  • It dramatically understates the actual cost of the project, both by mis-stating initial capital costs, and by omitting operation and maintenance and periodic capital costs and toll charges.
  • The construction period is under-estimated, which likely understates capital costs, and overstates benefits
  • In addition, the study also omits the toll charges paid by road users from its definition of project costs, in clear violation of federal benefit-cost guidelines.
  • In addition, the IBR BCA study dramatically inflates estimated benefits.
  • It uses an incorrect occupancy estimate to inflate the number of travelers benefiting from the project.

Federal funding for the IBR project can’t go forward unless the benefit-cost analysis shows the project is cost-effective.  This report, which is replete with errors, omissions and highly questionable assumptions was prepared, not by some independent expert, but by WSP, a private consultant that holds more than $70 million in contracts to work on the IBR project—contracts that would very much be in jeopardy if the numbers in the benefit-cost study didn’t come out right.  But neither WSP nor the two state highway departments revealed this conflict of interest.

Must Read

Why is it so hard to get a red-light camera?  Angeleno (and some time City Observatory contributor), Miriam Pinski describes her experience trying to get a red light camera for an intersection in her neighborhood—one that has already cost the lives of some of her neighbors.  Red light cameras have been shown to significantly improve safety by discouraing red-light running, but the city council has made it all but impossible to get one on her street.  Some object to red light cameras as a revenue raising scam, but cameras could easily be tuned to focus entirely on safety. As Pinski relates:

Many of the problems with automated enforcement cameras, though, are eminently solvable. Los Angeles could make the first violation free and then implement a graduated system for fines, so the more red lights you run, the more you pay. After all, the certainty of getting caught matters more than the severity of the punishment.

The year of the E-Bike:  David Zipper argues that the most important transportation breakthrough of the year was the growing adoption of electric bicycles.  Writing at Fast Company, Zipper contrasts the widespread and successful growth of electric bike ownership and access to the continuing troubles plaguing the much over-hyped self-driving car.  The differences in the roll-out of the two technologies couldn’t be more striking:  self-driving is the province of a handful of very large firms, spending billions, which have produced a relative handful of vehicles, and which seem to pose huge safety risks to road users.  Meanwhile, e-bikes are a modest and simple upgrade to a robust technology, are cheap, pervasive and provided by hundreds of competing firms with their own innovative approaches.  A recent high profile crash of a self-driving Cruise vehicle in San Francisco, and the recall of 2 million Teslas is a stark reminder of the risks of autonomous vehicles; a theme punctuated by Netflix, which depicted dozens of Tesla’s run amuck nearly killing Julia Roberts:

Netflix: “Leave the world behind”

As Zipper notes:

E-bikes raise no such existential concerns. On the contrary, all signs indicate that a city full of e-bikes would be safer, healthier, cleaner, and less congested than one dominated by cars—no matter how they are driven. And e-bikes really are car replacers: The addition of a battery can enable even mobility-constrained cyclists to conquer hills, haul packages, or beat the heat. Better yet, families can save tens of thousands of dollars by using an e-bike in lieu of a second or third car. And lest we forget: E-bikes are fun.

In the News

Streetsblog featured a story on our critique of the benefit-cost analysis prepared to justify the $7.5 billion Interstate Bridge Replacement project.

The Week Observed, December 8, 2023

What City Observatory did this week

Tolling i-5 will produce massive traffic diversion.  The proposed I-5 Interstate Bridge Replacement (IBR) Project will be paid for in part by $2.80 to $4.30 tolls charged to travelers.  These tolls will cause tens of thousands of vehicles per day to stop crossing the I-5 bridge; and most traffic will divert to the parallel I-205 bridge, producing gridlock, according to IBR consultant reports and Metro travel demand modeling.

OregonDOT and Washington State DOT officials have offered vague and largely meaningless claims about potential diversion from tolling the I-5 bridge, and failed to disclose actual analyses done this subject by their consultants.

City Observatory obtained—via public records requests—toll revenue estimates prepared by IBR contractor Stantec, and travel demand modeling prepared by Metro for the IBR project.  These studies show that tolling I-5 will dramatically reduce I-5 traffic, with most vehicles diverting to I-205.

  • Tolling I-5 will cause traffic levels on I-5, currently about 140,000 vehicles per day will fall by almost half, and will permanently depress I-5 traffic
  • Tolling I-5 will cause more than 30,000 vehicles to divert to the parallel Interstate 205 bridge, likely producing gridlock.

The new toll revenue projections echo exactly the findings of studies for the earlier carbon copy of this same project (then called the Columbia River Crossing) as well as the experience of tolled bridges and highways elsewhere in the country.

Highway agency claims that investment grade forecasts are unlikely “worst case scenarios” are untrue:  Traffic levels routinely fall below levels predicted in investment grade forecasts, as happened with the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, and many other similar projects.

Down is not up:  The truth about traffic, congestion and trucking. A central message of the highway building sales pitch is that traffic is ever-growing and ever worsening, and that we have no choice but to throw more money at expanded capacity. The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) claims that traffic is every-rising, congestion is ever-worsening, and we’re always moving more and more trucks. The reality, as revealed by ODOT’s own statistics is very different:

Post-pandemic, traffic levels are lower than before, time lost to traffic congestion is down almost 40 percent, and fewer trucks are on Oregon’s roads. This lower level of demand means we don’t need to squander billions on added capacity, as ODOT is proposing.  Instead, measures to reduce or manage demand, like congestion pricing, could give us much faster travel times, at far lower cost. Claims that the increase in traffic is inexorable, and that congestion will only get worse, are just a marketing gimmick to sell capacity expansion.  It speaks volumes about state highway agencies that they’ll willing distort what their own  actual data are showing about declining traffic, lessened congestion, and fewer trucks on the road, to make these spurious claims.

Must Read

Like the “End of History” proclamations the “End of Freeways are premature and misleading.  Joe Linton, writing at LA Streetsblog dismantles some phony greenwashing from highway builders in Southern California who’ve billed the opening of a $2.1 billion freeway expansion project as the very last freeway they’ll ever build.  The CalTrans talking point, offered up stenographically by the Los Angeles Times, is that the completion of the 405 freeway in Orange County marks the end of an era.

As Linton points out, that’s not true:  The region’s highway agencies are planning literally billions in more spending on dozens of freeway projects.  Not only that, but the phony claim that “its the end of an era” is exactly the same story CalTrans got placed in a New York Times story—thirty years ago.

But the freeway era didn’t come anywhere near ending in the 1990s. Caltrans continued to spend copious state and federal funding to expand highways. Countywide sales taxes in Los Angeles and Orange counties funneled even more money into the well-oiled machine that continued to tear down homes to add more and more lanes. Since the 1990s, Caltrans leaders give lip service to their agency turning over a new leaf, but the department’s massive car capacity projects show these pledges to be false.

To be sure, they’ll keep building (and widening) freeways, they just won’t call them that.  It will be “auxiliary lanes” and “repaving.”  CalTrans just fired its deputy director for calling out the illegal and sham use of “repaving” as cover for widening Interstate 80 between Sacramento and Davis.  These are people who will nod and murmur that we can’t build our way out of congestion–and then spend billions more widening roads.  It’s hypcritical greenwash.

Accessibility:  Our daily bread.  Cities solve for transportation not just with buses, bikes and cars, but with proximity.  If daily destinations are close at hand, it takes less transport expense and infrastructure just to live. In economic terms, transportation is a “transaction cost”–the more and further we have to travel, the more time and money we have to spend to do the basics.  What good cities do is to put critical destinations close to where we live.  Dueling maps appeared on social media this past week that illustrate this pattern.  In Paris, Jonathan Berk (@berkie1) shows that 94 percent of Parisians live within 5 minutes of a boulangerie.  Not to be outdone, @datavizero offers up a map showing that 95 percent of residents of Mexico City are within 5 minutes of a taqueria.



The enormous savings from convenience, proximity and choice that are present in great cities are often entirely overlooked in our economic reckoning.  Next time someone talks about transportation, please think about how long it takes a typical resident to get a baguette or a taco.

The Week Observed, December 1, 2023

What City Observatory did this week

Secret plans show ODOT is planning a 10-lane freeway in the Rose Quarter.  City Observatory has obtained previously un-released plans showing that the $1.9 billion I-5 Rose Quarter project is being build with a 160-foot wide roadway, enough to accommodate a ten through traffic lanes, contradicting the Oregon Department of Transportation’s claim that their project merely adds “one auxiliary lane” in each direction.  Each of the two 81-foot wide bays underneath Broadway and Weidler Streets are enough to accommodate five lanes of traffic, with over-sized shoulders.

The project is even wider as it passes under NE Hancock Street, where it would balloon to 250 feet wide.  In reality, ODOT is proposing to double and even triple the existing 82-foot wide roadway.  The excessively wide roadway, which has to be lowered in order to provide adequate clearance for massive cross-beams, is the real reason the project is so expensive.  Far from reconnecting the community, ODOT’s plans vastly increase the width of the freeway scar through this historically Black neighborhood, and generate even more car traffic, making the area more dangerous and more polluted, and actually impairing redevelopment. In addition, the project’s Environmental Assessment fails to analyze the effects of this larger roadway, likely violating the National Environmental Policy Act.

Must Read

We’re all YIMBY’s now.  There’s widespread and bi-partisan report for addressing America’s housing shortage by making it easier to build more apartments.  A new poll from the Pew Charitable Trusts shows consistent and large majorities favor a battery of YIMBY (Yes in my back yard) policies, ranging from upzoning around transit stops and stations, adding accessory dwelling units, and allowing apartments near offices, stores and restaurants.

Strikingly the support crosses many of the nation’s demographic and ideological divides.  As the Pew authors note:

Support for most of the housing policies transcended the usual fault lines of political party, region, race, income, and gender. The eight most popular proposals received clear majority support from Republicans, Democrats, and independents. In addition, 9 of the 10 tested measures received majority support from both renters and homeowners.

The Pew polling should provide additional impetus to the growing legislative efforts to make it easier to build more housing.

Seattle votes against taxing new homes to subsidize driving.  One of the most insidious and invisible contributors to the housing shortage in US cities is the proliferation of “impact fees” that are imposed on new housing.  Politically, its popular to pretend to foist the cost of infrastructure, especially transportation, onto “developers” by imposing hefty fees on new housing, especially apartments.  But  basic economics demonstrates that new fees don’t come out of developer profits, but instead simply drive up the cost of new housing, and also—and this is critical—reduce how much new housing gets built, which ultimately makes all housing more expensive.  The Seattle City Council considered, and narrowly rejected a proposed transportation impact fee, persuaded by a study showing it would worsen the city’s housing problem by reducing construction 15 to 17 percent.

The defeat comes at a crucial time for housing affordability in the city.  The amount of new development has fallen off sharply, with applications for new apartment permits falling about 75 percent since 2020.  Burdening new housing construction with the costs of transportation, plus fees to subsidize affordable housing, discourages new investment; the effects may not be immediately apparent, but given the long lags in the construction cycle, it may be too late to correct these bad policies before the damage is done.

$7.5 billion Interstate Bridge Project named nation’s most expensive highway boondoggle.  The misleadingly named  Interstate Bridge Replacement project, really a 12-lane wide five mile long freeway expansion between Portland and Vancouver took top honors in the recently released Highway Boondoggles report prepared by the US Public Interest Research Group.  Streetsblog featured detailed coverage of the project this past week.

The IBR project has been a consultant grift of major proportions.  Public records obtained by City Observatory show that Oregon and Washington have already committed $192 million to consultants, including more than $20 million to public relations and communications consultants.  That comes on top of $200 million spend a decade ago on the same project, then called the Columbia River Crossing.