A perspective from Oregon’s mid-Willamette Valley

Congestion on I-5: What can be done?

Written July 16th, 2021 by Hasso Hering

Stopped on I-5 southbound, just before the Ankeny Hill exit, on Friday afternoon.

While we’re on the topic of highways (see the previous story), here’s some gratuitous advice. If you don’t have to be on I-5 north of Albany these summer days, don’t go. The road is too full, and stop-and-go traffic in places is the result.

We found ourselves going to a funeral in Salem around mid-day Friday. The trip up was slowed by one or two slowdowns. On the way back, traffic came to a stop and we managed to get off the freeway at Ankeny Hill, getting home via Jefferson and Millersburg.

I haven’t had to go that way very much in recent years. But for several years I used to run to Portland and back every every other Friday or so. That was two decades ago, and the freeway was almost always clear with traffic moving fast.

Now it’s often bumper to bumper, according to a 2018 report in the paper. And if somebody slows down, the driver behind slows down a little more, and so on, until the lane is standing still for as long as it takes for the resumption of movement in front to work its way back.

In 2019, the average daily traffic count on I-5 just south of the Commercial Street exit was just under 71,000. It probably went down a bit during the Covid restrictions, but on Friday it sure seemed as though traffic was at its previous high or maybe higher.

Is ODOT doing anything about this? What can they do? More lanes (adding a third each way near Albany and a fourth farther north) is ruinously expensive, maybe impossible, and takes years or even decades to plan.

In the Portland area, where congestion is far worse, ODOT plans to start a toll program. If that works to reduce traffic during peak periods, maybe it would work in this part of the valley too.

Or maybe the solution lies in autonomous cars and trucks. If they all run on computers, maybe they could go faster with less space in between, and without unnecessary braking.

But that’s a long time away. In the meantime, if you don’t want to waste time on the road, don’t go north on Interstate 5 during the day. (hh)

18 responses to “Congestion on I-5: What can be done?”

  1. Cheryl P says:

    I drive every day to Wilsonville and back. I leave anywhere between 7am – 8am. I return anywhere between 3pm – 6pm. North is generally not bad in the AM, I usually cruise with the flow of traffic around 70-75mph. Going home is different…there is the usual ‘rush hour’ until you get past Wilsonville Road and most days that is it. But then there are some weird areas…middle of nowhere where there are just fields…that traffic comes to a sudden stop. And I’ve noticed that there’s been some ‘traffic’ between Kubler and Delaney lately. Even coming into Albany…there is often slowing from Millersburg to Knox Butte.

    There is no inexpensive or easy solution. I would happily take the train north, but there are no stops between Salem and Oregon City. And even if they built a stop in Wilsonville, there is no bus service within five miles of the office (though we pay transit taxes).

    Of course, when the government has the day off, traffic is much, much better.

  2. Al Nyman says:

    Gee Hasso! Aren’t you the guy that advised us that ODUM was spending $5 million on a study as to whether I-5 needed to be widened to 3 lanes. They could have asked anybody in Albany whether there was a need for additional lanes and would been told yes there is. As the freeway through Albany was finished by 1959 (I worked on the Knox Butte overpass the summer of 1958), the money collected from I-5 has virtually paid for light rail (at least 6 billion dollars) with the capital costs not paid for by tolls much less the operating costs. I would guess at a minimum I-5 revenues produce 70% of ODUM’s budget which includes almost 5000 employees yet no money is spent on the road.

    Then your comment that it takes years or even decades to plan a road is ridiculous. All ODUM does is sit around and figure out ways to keep the employees happy. Reduce ODUM’s employees by 3000 as they don’t do anything! Per their own spokesman, they haven’t built a new road for 40 years until the bypass at 82nd Drive in Milwaukee.

    For those of us that have relatives north are we supposed to meet in the middle of the night!

    I remember you questioned ODUM about putting the cable guard rail on the side of the road versus the median strip and they told you it was a wet land and you bought the farm without question. There is no way a median strip is a wetland-they just didn’t want to spend the money to do the job properly.

  3. Rusty S. says:

    I fear tolls could serve as a punishment for using public roads. Why not positive incentives for not going places? Also, do you happen to know the difference in truck freeway traffic over recent years? During peak traffic hours, maybe keep trucks in the right lane unless they’re passing and there are no cars within 1/4 mile behind them. A truck passing another truck isn’t really passing, but more like two snails racing with no clear winner.

    Convert some rest areas into mandatory truck stop points (similar to scales) during peak hours. The stop time would have to be a minimum of 15 minutes.

    A second highway for a 5-10 mile stretch might be easier to build than adding an elongated third lane.

    Some 2-3 mile stretches could feasibly have a third lane added, similar to southbound south of Salem. Even these small stretches could help the traffic flow.

    Have an expressway connecting Woodburn in a southwest direction to 99W that would save ten minutes driving to/from Corvallis.

    Provide economy flying opportunities from Portland to Eugene, including economy car rentals.

    Incentivize more night driving for trucks, and allowing them to go 10 MPH faster at night? Also incentivize tag-team truck driving, for more night driving.

    Take more industries out of the big cities and spread them around. This would be a long-term progression.

    I don’t have much faith in autonomous cars being practical without being more trouble than they’re worth. At least not in the next few decades.

  4. HowlingCicada says:

    Congestion pricing.

    Key point: “… if you can take about 5 percent of cars off the road, traffic becomes much better.”

    If you like big government spending and don’t care if the problem returns in a couple years, then you’ll want to add lanes.

    • Al Nyman says:

      Really! I’ve heard that worn argument so many times from libs I could puke. Adding 1 lane in 62 years is too many?

      • HowlingCicada says:

        If you don’t want to hear that from “libs,” how about from Tyler Duvall, acting under-secretary for policy at the U.S. DoT during the George W. Bush administration, via National Affairs magazine:

        “””Congestion happens when demand exceeds capacity at a given time; it can therefore be solved not only by increasing capacity, but also by moderating demand. This does not necessarily require restricting access to our transportation infrastructure: All it requires is encouraging the use of that infrastructure at different times of day, or incentivizing the use of transportation alternatives.

        What is needed, in other words, is not necessarily more infrastructure, but rather a mechanism to make better use of the infrastructure we have. A price mechanism offers the most efficient solution. It compels potential users to ask themselves just how badly they really need to, say, use the highway during rush hour (instead of an hour earlier or later), or whether they really have to fly on Monday morning rather than Tuesday afternoon. Some will decide they do need to travel at peak times, and will pay a modest price for doing so. Others, however, will conclude that they can adjust their schedules or routes — and so will relieve some of the strain.”””

        From a long 2010 article including a lot about congressional earmarks. The most relevant part starts with the paragraph beginning: “But in the past five years, the sense of relative calm has been shattered,” about 40% down the page. Interesting example about shipping at the Port of Los Angeles.

  5. Gordon L. Shadle says:

    The overarching problem is racism, at least according to NPR.

    The 1956 act that created the highways imposed racial inequalities. White middle-class and affluent neighborhoods received disproportionate favor when the highways like I-5 were sited and built.

    The intent of the 1956 act was discrimination, and is reinforced daily from the highways, roads, bridges and sidewalks that favor the white dominant culture in Oregon.

    The conscious and unconscious result was to deny people of color access to transportation and the opportunities that mobility provide.

    President Biden, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, and Nancy & Chuck have promised to rectify this historical injustice through the infrastructure bill(s).

    I’m not certain how their grand plan will speed up traffic flow along I-5, but you should feel good as you sit in a traffic jam that our dear leaders in DC will at least solve the racist nature of the highways. Stay tuned.


    • Bob Woods says:

      All of which has NOTHING to do with the congestion Hasso is pointing out.

      It’s just another moronic opportunity for white conservative culture war attack on the rest of the citizenry.

  6. Richard Vannice says:

    The problem is a manner of choice. Choosing to live in the South Valley over where one works because housing is (or was) less than the metro area. We create our own problems with the assistance of the government.

  7. Bill Kapaun says:

    I would think a lot of I-5 interstate truck traffic could be used by rail? Maybe subsidize rail to a greater extent? Flat bed rail cars with a couple truck trailers each would add up. North bound trucks on I-5 could drop off their trailers at the old paper mill site and pick up South bound trailers. Rail cars from that point North.

  8. Dave M says:

    I hope that when the Mid-Willamette Valley Intermodal Center is operational that congestion on I-5 will be significantly reduce.
    “Officials are aiming for the site to be ready for operation by January, 2022.” (from the GT) https://www.gazettetimes.com/news/local/intermodal-shipping-site-groundbreaking-underway/article_ac9ce864-54f4-5781-93cd-cbe61c83f33d.html

  9. John Allen says:

    When ODOT last resurfaced I-5 between Salem and Albany, they built 2 lanes between the North and South lanes to use as a bypass during work. Many of us said they should build it up to current standards so it could function as additional lanes or emergency bypass lanes when I-5 was blocked or slowed by accidents. But ODOT insisted on building them as temporary and removing them after the project was completed. Big, big mistake which was recognized as such by many of us at that time.

  10. Bob Woods says:

    BTW: If you see a truck trailer with AMZL and a number on the back, it’s an Amazon Logistics trailer. Business Insider says they plan to double their existing fleet in 2021.


    PLUS they’re setting up an incubator for folks to start their own trucking companies, who will then work for Amazon.


    A lot more congestion coming.

  11. Mike says:

    Tolls will not work, I come from the Northeast and they simply make things worse. Eventually no one avoids them after they become used to them, complaints about paying a toll rise, congestion gets worse (if they are non electronic tolls), and confidence in government goes down.

    I do not have any optimism when it comes to tolls at all. In my experience they just become viewed as a way to charge people again for something their taxes are supposed to pay for.

  12. George Pugh says:

    Oh my, where to start?
    We used to ship our grass seed by the box car loads. Seed brokers would buy it from the farmers and we would load it in the box car and away it went. But the railroad companies called it cheap freight and sometimes it sat on a siding for a wile before it was finally delivered.
    Somewhere in the ’90s interest got more expensive and “just in time deliveries” came about. Inventories cost money and new distributors didn’t always build along the railroad track so when the delivery did get there they had to hire a truck to unload the car and haul it to storage or the sales point. And they didn’t want 156,000 at a time. So now we ship 42 to 45,000 lbs. at a time on a truck that gets there in three days or so.
    We still do load “stack trains” sometimes which are trailer loaded and shipped on a flat car, but that is for customers who can afford to finance and wait.
    Forgive me for jumping around but this gets me to the reload station. I’m sure it will help the freeway traffic some. It will particularly, in ag marketing, help the grass straw export trade in getting their containers to Tacoma, but currently the back haul is empty containers for the next load. Somebody will supply them but it will be at an added cost.
    There are a lot of interesting ideas above this post, but regarding dedicating rest stops to sidelined truckers, well, we hardly have enough of them now (says an aging reader). Truckers have only so many straight hours they can run between mandatory rest periods and to sideline them for the convenience of rush hour traffic would be costly to the trucking industry and the drivers.
    I was in Germany a couple of falls ago and we traveled by bus on several highways. Two observations: They were adding a lot of new lanes and access and egress points. The condition of their highways was outstanding.
    And, the freight truck traffic was in the right hand lane and they stayed in that lane. They did no try to pass each other. I don’t know what speeds they were going, I don’t know what speed our buses were going, but they did not interfere with the auto and bus traffic. I suspect our antique farm trucks would not be allowed on their highways. I would like to learn more about their system.
    And I apologize for the length of this post.

  13. Chad Richey says:

    Ruinously expensive, years or decades to plan, really Hasso??? This was repeatedly discussed by ODOT in the 80’s, as well as the Dever-Conner to North Albany bridge was. What, has ODOT lost all of the studies through attrition. Taxes and tax increases have been squandered by an ever sprawling government. In the meantime, many newcomers from out of state and increased traffic have only exacerbated a long standing problem.


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