Traffic over the Columbia River remains below 2019 levels and is barely growing


The bridges connecting Portland and Vancouver are carrying 15,000 fewer vehicles each day than before the COVID-19 pandemic, and the rate of growth has slowed to a trickle.

The reduced traffic volume highlights profound changes in the regional economy, including the shift to remote and hybrid work. It also invites questions about how to plan for a new Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia, and whether current traffic forecasts will bear out.

A little more than 280,000 vehicles cross the Glenn Jackson Bridge (Interstate 205) and the Interstate Bridge (I-5) each day, according to the Oregon Department of Transportation. Slightly more than half choose I-205.

Traffic levels plunged when COVID-19 hit in 2020 and partially bounced back in subsequent years, but daily bridge traffic remains down about 5%.

That’s in line with traffic volumes on other freeways in the metro area, according to the state.

“Traffic is really strongly correlated with economic activity,” said Becky Knudson, a state transportation economist.

In the pandemic’s aftermath, though, the story is a little more complicated.

Washington and Oregon have each recovered the jobs they lost to COVID-19 but bridge traffic hasn’t fully recovered. Less traffic isn’t a bad thing, of course, but it can be useful to understand what has changed.

“It’s a combination of many things,” said Chi Mai, a transportation system engineer for the state.

Remote work is at the top of the factors reducing traffic patterns, Mai said. E-commerce and ridesharing services may also play a role, but it’s impossible to know how big.

Predicting future traffic volumes is no less difficult, especially because population growth has stalled on the Oregon side of the Columbia. But state economists and transportation planners expect at least modest growth to resume in the coming years.

“When it comes to forecasting, we know the state’s going to grow. That’s just kind of the way we are,” Knudson said. And she said more people mean more traffic.

“We do know it’s going to go up,” she said. “We don’t know how fast it’s going to go up.”

A vocal contingent of skeptics think transportation planners are misreading the numbers. And they say that means Oregon and Washington should rethink the scale of the new I-5 bridge.

“The trajectory of traffic growth has changed and it isn’t showing that it’s rebounding significantly,” said Joe Cortright, a Portland economic consultant who works with No More Freeways, which is fighting freeway expansion in the Portland area.

Traffic over the I-5 and I-205 bridges climbed by just 1% last year, according to the Oregon figures. Cortright said remote office work and other factors have permanently changed traffic volumes and said projections supporting a large new I-5 bridge are “wildly inflated.”

The Interstate Bridge Replacement Program is a joint project of the Washington and Oregon transportation departments. In a statement, it said it still believes the falloff “is a temporary dip that will continue to recover” and so it is using 2019 traffic volumes as a baseline for its forecasts.

Already, the Interstate Bridge is congested for 10 hours a day, according to the program. It said a new bridge, which would cost several billion dollars, would do more than just add capacity – it would also be less vulnerable to earthquakes, improve bike and pedestrian access and increase public transportation options.

A new environmental impact statement due later this year will provide more specific forecasts and estimate traffic volumes in 2045.

“We understand there will be fluctuations in traffic, which is why we do a long-term projection, with an understanding of historic growth patterns,” the project said in a statement.

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