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Fixing congestion must be a priority

It was welcome news last week when the U.S. Department of Transportation publicly joined Portland area business and governmental leaders in acknowledging that mounting traffic congestion places an increasingly expensive chokehold on the economy and will cost the nation $200 billion a year in freight delays, lost commuter time and wasted fuel.

In Portland alone, it is estimated that unabated congestion will grow to cost the region $844 million annually within 20 years.

Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta last week said congestion is a national priority as he unveiled a plan to ease highway, freight and airport congestion.

The federal plan follows the December 2005 release of a Portland regional study that demonstrated the effects of congestion on the regional economy and commuters. Since then, regional business leaders and a growing number of government officials have said strategic investments can mitigate congestion and stimulate economic vitality. Portland's efforts have gained national attention. Earlier this month, a Portland business delegation to Washington, D.C., was congratulated by Bush administration officials for sounding the alarm about the cost of congestion.

However, identifying the impact of congestion and reducing its increasingly negative consequences are two different things. For years, transportation investments typically have not focused on economic outcomes.

That should change now.

In the federal government, Portland area transportation advocates have a new ally that they should utilize. Bush officials say they plan to designate three to five interstate trade and travel corridors where targeted transportation programs can help reduce costly congestion. Due to its being a major interstate auto, international air, seaport and rail center, Portland should be one of the corridors picked by the feds.

Despite the national attention that Portland's efforts are receiving regionally, efforts to mitigate the impact of congestion are taking some hits. Recently, respected Portland-based economist Joe Cortright said that investments to reduce congestion will produce limited results and that the money would be better spent on improving the state and regional education systems.

Cortright's criticisms are off target. We respect Cortright for his articulate support of improving the state and regional economy by investing in traded sector industries, such as high-tech, creative, and the sporting goods and apparel industries, which typically pay high wages and stimulate intellectual creativity. But Cortright is in error by consistently downplaying the economic importance of effectively transporting people, freight, goods and services.

We do agree with Cortright that strategic transportation investments are expensive and would not totally eliminate congestion. But they would slow the growth of congestion that otherwise will strangle the region and the economy.

Furthermore, Cortright should know better than to suggest that the region divert transportation funding to education. He knows that state and federal laws focus these funds on transportation improvements and not on other, worthy things such as education.

Instead, we suggest that as regional and national leadership concentrates on an improved, economically sensitive transportation system, we make similar efforts to improve how we educate our young people, do research and give new skills to those working in the economy.

We can do both and Portland should lead the way, not choose between the two.

Editorial board member Steve Clark is a participant in the regional Cost of Congestion steering committee.