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Editorial: There but for the grace of God go I

Ken Vance Editorial Clarkcountytoday.comTwo days spent commuting between Washington and Oregon was enough to remind this Clark County resident how blessed he is not to have to commute across the Columbia River to work

I had a wonderful opportunity to visit a past career this week, and while it was a very rewarding experience, it came with a reminder of just how bad the traffic congestion issues are for Clark County residents.

I was asked to fill in as co-host the last two days on the midday show on NBC Sports Northwest Rip City Radio 620. I have spent considerable time in my career serving as an on-air host on sports talk radio. I’m very happy with my current day job, so I usually politely decline the few offers I get these days to do radio work.

This time, however, I had the opportunity to work with some folks I’ve known and worked with for nearly 20 years. I decided not to turn this opportunity down, even though it led to a couple of sleepless nights as I happily stayed up late working on tasks required by my full-time gig. I’m glad I made the decision I did. Just days away from my 55th birthday, the special people in my life just keep getting more special and I’m thankful that I was blessed with the opportunity to work and interact with so many of them over the past two days.

But, the blessing of the last two days didn’t come without some pain. Because I’ve written so many times in this space over the past two years about our transportation congestion problems, you might be surprised that I can still be surprised about how bad the situation is and the monumental amount of failure and ineptitude that elected officials and community leaders in both Washington and Oregon have displayed over the past 30-plus years.

My commitment the last two days led me to commute to Portland in the middle of the morning each day. That commute, similar to the one made by more than 70,000 Clark County residents each week, was tolerable in the middle of the morning. It wasn’t clear sailing, but the slowdown between Portland Meadows and the I-405 exit on I-5 only added 10 minutes or so to the drive.

 

Traffic on I-5 just north of the bridge can be rather benign, even in the afternoon commute. On the other side of the Columbia River, however, life is dramatically different for the 70,000-plus Clark County residents who commute to work in Oregon each week. Photo by Mike Schultz
Traffic on I-5 just north of the bridge can be rather benign, even in the afternoon commute. On the other side of the Columbia River, however, life is dramatically different for the 70,000-plus Clark County residents who commute to work in Oregon each week. Photo by Mike Schultz

 

The bad news is I was done with my fill-in duties and ready to head back to Vancouver at about 3:30 p.m. both days. I was in a good frame of mind both days, my spirits buoyed from the interaction I had enjoyed with so many wonderful people. Because of that, I decided to use the two commutes back to Clark County as a fact-finding mission.

I am just not the type of person who is willing to sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic, which commuters experience on I-5 (north) every afternoon at that time. I would rather drive 30 miles out of my way than sit in traffic for 30 minutes. On Tuesday, I elected to try alternative routes to I-5 so I headed to North Portland to see how bad the side streets were. I bounced around, attempting to find the best possible path. The side streets weren’t horrible, but in the back of my mind, I knew no matter what I did I was headed to the same bottleneck, the I-5 bridge.

Of the options to get back on I-5 from the side streets, I chose the onramp just north of the Portland Meadows racetrack. It was jammed to the gills, but the same was the case with the onramp from Interstate Avenue and from Martin Luther King Blvd. There was just no way to outsmart the thousands of other drivers who, like me, were trying to get back to Washington via I-5.

On Wednesday, I decided to see what it was like to attempt the commute home via the I-205 bridge. It was the exact same experience. It was slow, but tolerable, heading east on I-84 but there was the same inevitability that I faced the day before. No matter what path I chose, it was eventually going to lead to the only other bottleneck we currently have to cross the Columbia River. A couple of miles before I got to the exit from I-84 to I-205, traffic in the exit lane came to a crawl and there was no getting around it until I paid my dues, slowly inching along in traffic until I got onto the I-205 bridge. At that point, just as was the case on I-5 the day before, once I got onto the bridge, traffic virtually opened up as I, thankfully, returned to Clark County.

The time I spent in that traffic was spent in thought. My overwhelming thought was how can any elected official not devote all of their influence and energy to try to get us a third and a fourth crossing over the Columbia River? There are absolutely no other solutions. We need more capacity and that is not going to be created by replacing the I-5 bridge first. The only thing that kept me sane the last two days was the knowledge that I wouldn’t have to make this commute on a regular basis and my heart literally went out to those thousands of Clark County residents who, virtually, have no choice but to make it several times each week. I know what it’s like to need a job, so I can appreciate those commuters who feel they have no choice but to continue to work in Oregon. I can tell you that I would move heaven and earth to find another way to make a living than to experience this commute on a regular basis.

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