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Light rail's the answer

MY VIEW • Mass-transit line to Washington may save billions
by: L.E. Baskow, The Interstate 5 bridge between Portland and Vancouver, Wash., exceeds its capacity at least four hours a day, according to a light-rail advocate who says a commuter-rail bridge could alleviate the problem.

According to the Columbia River Crossing staff, the Interstate Bridge between Oregon and Washington has a 5,400-vehicle-per-hour capacity.

Current demand exceeds that capacity for at least four hours during peak traffic times, causing stop-and-go traffic.

If this demand could be reduced with aggressive transit service, no additional freeway capacity would be needed and billions of dollars could be saved.

But a transit solution to the Columbia River Crossing problem has never been given serious consideration.

A light-rail extension on its own bridge to downtown Vancouver, Wash., could more than double the crossing capacity of the current freeway bridges. Light rail can carry 9,000 passengers an hour in each direction with a train every two minutes. This is the equivalent of a 10-lane freeway.

With this capacity, all that is missing is the development of high-frequency transit systems in Clark County and Portland that would effectively feed the light-rail line.

The cost of providing these systems has never been established. It could be the most cost-effective solution to the Columbia Crossing traffic problem.

Vancouver, British Columbia, faced a similar traffic problem back in the early '70s when traffic congestion on the Lions Gate Bridge over the Burrard Inlet - a body of water between Vancouver and North Vancouver - was reaching critical mass.

Planners gave serious consideration to building another bridge but, instead, opted for a public transportation solution. The solution was a combination of effective bus service in both communities, connected by a frequent and rapid passenger ferry service.

Now, 30 years later, they've added light rail and commuter rail to the system. They also are building a metro subway and adding another ferryboat. They are not building another bridge.

This illustrates how a well-designed, integrated public transportation system can be a highly effective way for large numbers of people to get where they want to go, when they want to go, without their cars.

Given the city of Portland's recent resolution to reduce oil consumption by 50 percent in 25 years and our state's concerns for global warming, a transit solution to the Columbia River Crossing issue should be considered before any freeway project is initiated.

Perhaps a light-rail bridge that would help reduce vehicular fuel consumption could be partly funded with offset payments mandated by the state from power companies wanting to build new power plants that create additional carbon dioxide emissions.

Jim Howell is a former transit service planner at TriMet and is a director of the Association of Oregon Rail and Transit Advocates.