Hwy. 20 gridlock: Quit making it worse – Hasso Hering


A perspective from Oregon’s mid-Willamette Valley

Hwy. 20 gridlock: Quit making it worse

Written April 4th, 2019 by Hasso Hering

Looking east on Highway 20 from N. Albany Road shortly after 6 p.m. on April 1.

Around 6 last Monday night, because of an accident on the Ellsworth Street Bridge, it took half an hour for a car to move 2,200 feet from North Albany Road at Hickory to the signal on Highway 20 and Spring Hill. On Thursday it took a long time too, even though both lanes on the bridge were open.

Evening backups at the Highway 20 bridges in Albany are nothing new but are getting more and more routine. Which is why Albany, Adair Village, Millersburg, Benton County, and Linn-Benton Community College are pushing for a regional study “to evaluate capacity improvement options for Highway 20 and its crossings of the Willamette River.”

ODOT has not wanted to launch such a study because of the perennial shortage of money for enlarging highway capacity, according to the local jurisdictions. So in a letter dated March 26, they appealed for “support and assistance” from the Albany and Corvallis metropolitan planning organizations. The MPOs have some authority in allocating state and federal highway funds.

“The Highway 20 bridges over the Willamette River in Albany are becoming increasingly congested and no longer meet the performance standards contained in the Oregon Highway Plan,” the letter says. “Drivers routinely experience significant peak-hour delays when using the bridges, and virtually any type of ‘incident’ on or near the bridges results in gridlock and queuing that can back up traffic for miles.”

This week we saw examples of this, as though they were needed.

The bridges were built in 1925 (Ellsworth) and 1973 (Lyon Street). The letter says they are at or near capacity because of growth in the area over the last 90 years. Even now, 200 houses are being built in Adair Village, and 880 additional houses are proposed there. Similar growth has happened in North Albany since the formerly rural district was annexed to Albany in 1991.

It’s not clear what an ODOT study could possibly come up with, short of the often-envisioned but never seriously considered idea of a new bridge across the Willamette at Millersburg, connecting there with I-5. Aside from the astronomical costs of such a project, the new roads feeding the new bridge would have to cut through miles of farmland and new subdivisions. The legal and political fights would take decades before eventually running into the ground, as recently happened in Salem and Portland.

The bridges in Albany can’t be expanded or relocated without wiping out a chunk of Albany’s historic districts. So forget that idea.

One solution, seems to me, is to look at the cause, not the symptom. The cause is population growth as a result of land-use decisions taken without regard to long-term impacts on traffic or anything else. If, for example, Adair or North Albany drivers are already clogging the highway system, why would a sensible town encourage or allow the building of another 1,000 houses?

It may not seem that way to us when we’re stuck in gridlock, but for about 18 or 20 hours of each day, the Albany-Corvallis Highway and its bridges have all the capacity that anybody needs.

Before we pressure ODOT to spend vast sums on highway expansion, maybe we should quit making the problem worse by building houses where they don’t belong. And then we could decide not to drive back and forth so much. Or to time our driving when the roads are clear. (hh)

The video below: Crossing the Ellsworth Street bridge after Monday night’s accident site was cleared.

[youtube video=”BSVaujqLBVE”]

Posted in: Commentary, News

41 responses to “Hwy. 20 gridlock: Quit making it worse”

  1. Larry Ridgley says:

    ODOT (and most state agencies) don’t have money because all of the PERS Tier 1 retirees that they have to pay for. Same thing for our city projects. I know it’s a political death sentence for our legislators to even PROPOSE a cut (or at least parity) of Tier 1. We need a grass-roots, people-driven movement to make a change. We at least need to reduce Tier 1 to an amount no greater than the person had when they retired and no more.

    • ean says:

      I tend to agree that the PERS benefits are way to generous but if you try to modify tier 1 you will likely end up in court and then out legal fees and still owe the retirees.

  2. Shann Jones says:

    So then where do you propose housing be constructed to accommodate the increasing population?

    Maybe instead mandate folks cannot cross county lines to commute during “rush hour”. Keep all of the OSU employees in Benton County?

    • Talley Richardson says:

      So, if you work at OSU, you have to live in Benton county? How do you regulate that? People move and get new jobs all the time. What about the people that have lived in Albany and worked at OSU for 10 or 20 years. Are they supposed to move or quit their job?

      • Rich Kellum says:

        No Tally, but knowing the choke point at the bridges, you may WANT to live on the same side of the river that you work…. I guess I didn’t say that well enough

        • Jon Stratton says:

          I live on the same side of the river that I work in. Doesn’t save me from backed up traffic when someone does something stupid due to impatience at Independence Hwy, Granger, or any number of other points along the Hwy 20 route. Unless you live next door to where you work, traffic is going to be an issue.

  3. RICHARD Kay says:

    Between personal income taxes and corporate taxes, the forecast suggests revenues in the current biennium coming in at $833 million higher than the earlier prediction. That would mean the 2% “kicker” comes into play. Give up your 2% kicker, write your congress person and demand it goes into the general fund. that would certainly help. It isn’t Tier 1 retirees as much as you would like to believe the media. Most people on Tier 1 are NOT taking home as much as they made [yes I am a Tier one retiree – and there are much fewer of us each year]. For a lot of the years we contributed into our Tier 1 retirement plan we received no raises. COLA and were paid less then the general population. That was their bargaining chip. Secondly, when you start proposing changes to a LEGAL CONTRACT that is in force it will never be changed by a vote of the people, or the legislature. They have tried an it has failed each time, causing the state to have to pay back the money with interest.

  4. Tim Hanson says:

    There’s a similar problem in Corvallis with commuter traffic in the afternoons. The Van Buren bridge is one-lane and a huge bottle neck. At least there is a highway bypass avoiding downtown congestion.

  5. J. Jacobson says:

    The 800# gorilla no one talks about is controlling human population growth. Homo Sapiens is one of the few species who believe there should be no restraint on our Willy-Nilly reproductive output. Homo Sapiens is also one of few species that, instead of facing the truth about too many humans clogging the planet, spends endless hours blithering-on about how it is Tier 1 PERS retirees are the cause of our problems.

    When the Ellsworth and Lyon bridges were built, they were adequate for the load. Perhaps a wiser strategy would be as follows:

    1. Only one child per family.
    2. If you already had your one-child (fathered or mothered) your reproductive days are over. No new kids just cuz you got a trophy husband or wife after your divorce.
    3. Inner-City vehicle penalty, as in London where those who insist on driving into the City pay a hefty premium for the privilege on a daily basis. This might encourage use of the Albany Transit System.
    4. A .75-cent per gallon “commuter gas tax,” which might encourage more Mass Transit use.
    5. Massive tax penalties on anyone who creates a second child.

    Homo Sapiens is not so sophisticated as we believe. Our shortcomings blind us. Our egos delude us. You can build bridges over the Willamette until Hades freezes over, but until humanity quits stumbling along, content with the vision our self-imposed blinders present to us, another bridge will simply create bigger problems.

    • Roger That says:

      #’s 1 and 2… Are you kidding me? Go talk to China and see how that is working out for them. Your other ideas are valid, but when you include this kind of garbage no one is going to listen to you.

      • HowlingCicada says:

        China’s demographic nightmare was caused by Mao’s cannon-fodder policy in the early days. Their one-child policy may have been over-correction, but there really are limits to how many people any given area of the world can support. If you want human dignity, quality of life, environmental preservation, and avoidance of resource wars in addition to mere survival, those limits are much lower.

    • Gordon L. Shadle says:

      The U.S. population is stagnating. The problem isn’t out of control reproduction.

      The issue is a population that is shifting to more desirable locations. Oregon is becoming California. Florida is becoming New York.


    • HowlingCicada says:

      J. Jacobson, I might express it a little differently, but (believe it or not) I think you’re right on part of the problem and part of the solution.

      There is political correctness on both sides of the political fault line to overcome regarding population. On the right, it’s the obvious stuff about abortion, religious sensitivities, and unwillingness to spend money on almost anything.

      On the left, it’s a harder to pin down bunch of stuff (mostly related to identity politics?) on which I plead ignorence. Certainly, a relative increase in population of the disadvantaged will help the left to increase political power, at least in the short time frame that matters most to politicians.

  6. Gordon L. Shadle says:

    Hey, don’t blame new housing. And according to the ODOT Transportation Commission adding capacity (new bridges, additional lanes) won’t solve the demand problem. So what should be done?

    Simple. Oregonians love taxes and social engineering, so ODOT should impose an automated congestion tax to manage demand. This means every vehicle pays to enter Highway 20.

    Public roads are for rich folks so the tax should be set high enough to free up highway space and keep traffic flowing.

    So get your wallets out and smile as your car’s transponder gleefully tells the state how much tax you owe.

    And those who can’t afford the tax? Well….just take public transportation.

    • HowlingCicada says:

      You view it sarcastically, but the economics are sound. Tax the things you want to reduce (like driving or using electrical power in peak times), instead of just taxing everything uniformly (like the gas tax). Congestion pricing helps everyone, including those who pay the tax. I don’t understand why conservatives can’t grasp that.

    • Stephanie says:

      I would gladly pay taxes or an increased fare for additional Linn-Benton Loop routes going from central or North Albany to OSU. The morning options are decent, but the only afternoon buses are at 4:40p or 6:20p. If you need to return home in the middle of the day, heaven forbid, it will take you at least an hour and three buses. I know there are more options from LBCC, but by the time I’ve driven there, I could be halfway to Corvallis. Just not worth it.

  7. Jesse Sims says:

    None of this will change in our lifetime. Get used to it. Our government and economic system are too gridlocked to make any significant alteration.

  8. Craig says:

    If, for example, Adair or North Albany drivers are already clogging the highway system, why would a sensible town encourage or allow the building of another 1,000 houses?

    I’m gonna take a guess…. tax revenue.

  9. thomas cordier says:

    We who already live here can stop the development. There is no distinct benefit to continue to grow in population. Now the State wants higher population densities. We just need the will/desire to stop growth.The planners don’t like that because their jobs won’t be needed and local building contractors will holler too. We know Big cities are rife with majority of social ills; so just say no.

  10. CHEZZ says:

    Drive 8 lanes one way 5 days a week to work then back; gridlock your way out of town for a breather on the weekend. Then, you will kiss the ground you’re on.
    Been there, done that.

  11. Mike Patrick says:

    In 1973 there about 13,000 people living in Albany. Today well over 50,000 people living here. You have to be an idiot to believe there is any other issue causing this other than local population has grown over 4 times since the 2nd bridge was added.

  12. centrist says:

    A simple story about Albany rush-minutes traffic has sure ginned a confusing comment stream.
    The traffic is related to PERS costs, people living wherever they want, to unrestrained reproduction.
    GS makes the soundest point — people move to desirable locations to live.
    MP makes the point that the infrastructure dates to 1973.
    Much has changed, but not the infrastructure

  13. BV says:

    The only people that can “time their driving when the roads are clear” are the ones that don’t work. Great solution for the retired but not so much for the rest of us. Your perspective is a bit limited there HH. How about you don’t police your responses and actually post this.

  14. Rich Kellum says:

    The Sky IS falling, and has been falling, everybody knows that the bridges are a choke point. So if you work in Corvallis, buy a house on that side of the river, Same thing applies to work on the east side of the river, Buy a house on the east side. New houses are being built on BOTH sides of the river. That works for people buying a new house, for those that have existing houses, you are choosing to put up with the delay in order to live where you want to live…

    We have been doing this to ourselves for decades, People chose land use planning, which made available land hyper expensive, which means that instead of a “couple of acres” we now have lots with 6500 square feet. Which concentrates people and causes congestion on the roads. Your choice. Compare your travel time to work to that of Salem or Portland, or Seattle… compared to them, we do not have a problem..

    • HowlingCicada says:

      If you have a single choke point (the bridges), how does “land use planning,” “lots with 6500 square feet,” denser population, etc, cause congestion if the total population is the same as with lower density?

      In other words, how does having 50-60 thousand people living in fairly high density in 10 square miles cause greater bridge congestion than having 50-60 thousand people living on two-acre lots all over the place?

      What am I missing?

      I’m not arguing for or against density, except:

      1 – Higher density makes it more feasible for public transit which might reduce congestion. Albany isn’t dense or congested enough for this to work. Come back when the population is 100,000.

      2 – Higher density makes it easier for individuals to choose alternate ways of getting around, like walking or biking. Instant congestion relief, at least on nice days.

      3 – Higher density makes car pooling more efficient (higher probability of fellow riders nearby). Some studies have shown that pedestrian-friendly, car-unfriendly neighborhoods cause people to feel less isolated from their neighbors. This should make them more amenable to car pooling (my guess). Hence, both the desirability and the logistics of car pooling are improved.

      • Rich Kellum says:

        6500 square feet means 14 times the population on an old “2 acre” lot. which is concentration of people if you have a thousand acres of available land, 2 acre lots make 500 houses at 2.xx people or3 people means 1500 extra people… 6500 ft2 lots that number is more like 14000 lots at 3 times or 42000 people going thru that choke point, instead of 42000 people from all over the place not just that choke point..
        your higher density makes for more mass transit or bicycling is a straw man. People do not use mass transit because they do not like it, don’t use bicycles because of the same reason in the winter and sweat in the summer.

        • Ray Kopczynski says:

          While that is true, supposedly[?], the “free market” will determine the best outcome? When enough folks decline to buy the homes that are built because of price or ancillary considerations such as traffic, density, etc., they won’t be. In the mean time, it sure sounds like classic NIMBY to me: “I got mine, heck with everyone else! Put up a wall to keep the hordes out!”

    • Stephanie says:

      The median home price in Corvallis is $100K higher than Albany, and median rent is $130/bedroom higher. Ideally people live where they work or go to school, but in reality they seek out housing they can afford.

  15. Peg Richner says:

    Establish tolls to cross the bridges, significant enough at peak times to discourage all but the most determined to cross at the busiest times.

    Never forget, roads and bridges for the most part are provided by government edict, but manufacturers supply the vehicles determined by demand. There’s almost always a disconnect between these two types of activities.

    • HowlingCicada says:

      Yes to tolls, especially at peak times. That’s just smart economics. Thank you.

      Not so sure about manufacturers only responding to demand. They also create demand (advertising with fantasy nonsense about wide-open spaces, etc) and have a large incentive to push big gas-guzzling monsters because that’s where profit is highest.

    • John Allen says:

      H*ll no on tolls. We paid for the bridges and roads already. Build more bridges and lanes and we’ll pay for that. The state insists on dumping money into bike lanes, green boxes, and projects like the ridiculous Tillicum Crossing. Spend that money to serve your citizens as they desire not as the politicians desire. Forget the social engineering trying to force people to do what you want rather than delivering what they really want.

  16. Chad Richey says:

    The issue is the city has been pushing additional housing in N.A. for years to increase revenue without the foresight to build the infrastructure. Hell, they’ve even allowed wetlands to be “moved” for new housing construction. At the current moment our foolish legislators desire a 3rd bridge in Salem….What… how about a 3rd lane on I-5 and a bridge from Millersburg over the Willamette.

  17. centrist says:

    The choke point in this case is not a bridge. It’s the 25 MPH grid adjacent. That grid is appropriate for the area. Have to say that the restriping at 9th and Ellsworth has significantly improved flow.
    The solution, if the populace chooses to support it, will involve a bridge and highway that bypass downtown. The hard part will involve displacing property owners to build the new road.
    Given the local aversion to taxes, settle in for much grumbling.

  18. Albany YIMBY says:

    People want an affordable house in a nice place to live and they also want ease to travel with their private vehicle to work and back home.

    But maybe we need to think that we can’t make a square out of a circle. The suburban development of Albany and Corvallis is not solving the transportation issues between both cities. Let’s see what could be done:

    1) Increase road capacity and improve the bridge/add another bridge: Soon enough gridlock will come again. Induced demand will clog the road again. Pedestrians, cyclists, children, the elderly, disabled people and the poor will suffer the consequences of car-oriented transportation policies.

    2) Bypass downtown for traffic going to I5: that sound reasonable to me, there is absolutely no reason for through traffic from Corvallis to cross all Albany if they just want to take I5.

    3) Promote city planning practices that allow for people to live close to where they work. Allow for greater density in Albany, encouraging mixed-zoning, with more apartment buildings and small businesses. Not everyone wants to live in a condo, but improving density and allowing 20-30% of people to live closer to where they work would definitely help with traffic. Stop urban sprawl immediately.

    4) Build a cycle corridor between Albany and Corvallis. Now, with electric scooters and bicycles, a path along the Willamette from Corvallis to Albany not only would be a great recreational attraction, but possibly, a commuting alternative separated from cars. No cyclist wants to die on Hwy 20 without shoulders and heavy traffic.

    5) Think about a light-rail system between Corvallis and Albany. Light-rail (like the Max) does not have the stigma buses have. Middle class people would be comfortable riding it every day from OSU downtown Albany to downtown Corvallis, with park and ride facilities.

    But, ah, we Oregonians don’t like to pay for those things. Those kind of things are for snobby Europeans, you know, but you get what you pay for.

  19. Dala Rouse says:

    What would make me a little happy is if the lights in N.Albany would turn green on hwy 20 at the same time so traffic at least during rush hour would flow easier. When you have to stop at both signals and than also at bottom of bridge too, you don’t go anywhere very fast and than if Springhill and N. Albany did the same. Bring back 2 lanes going into town off Springhill and build a new left turn lane. If the road needs building up than do it. Trucks sometimes still tip over even with one lane When Hwy 34 closed it took me 1 hour and 15 minutes to drive 13 miles from Corvallis. I had to stop at all 3 signals too.

  20. Ray Kopczynski says:

    “Bring back 2 lanes going into town off Springhill and build a new left turn lane.”

    “If the road needs building up than do it.”
    All we have to do is convince ODOT… :-)

    • Hasso Hering says:

      Two lanes or one from Spring Hill, it makes no likely difference to the overall congestion during rush hour. As someone commented, the lights in the downtown grid don’t allow the bridge and its approaches on three roads to be emptied as fast as they fill up when traffic is heavy.


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