Freeway Widening for Whomst?

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The proposal to spend $5 billion to widen a five-mile stretch of I-5 between Portland and Vancouver is being marketed with a generous dose of equity washing. While it is branded the “Interstate Bridge Replacement,” or IBR, replacing the bridge is less than a quarter of the total cost; most of the expense involves plans to double the width of the freeway to handle more peak hour traffic. The project has gone to some lengths to characterize suburban Clark County as an increasingly diverse population to create the illusion that the freeway widening project is primarily about helping low- and moderate-income households and people of color travel through the region. A quick look at Census data shows these equity claims are simply false. Peak hour freeway travelers commuting from homes in Washington to jobs in Oregon are overwhelmingly wealthy and white compared to the region’s average resident.

What this project would do is widen—from six lanes to as many as 14 lanes—five miles of Interstate 5 between Portland and Vancouver. The principal reason for the project is a claim that traffic volumes on I-5 cause the road to be congested. But congestion is primarily a peak hour problem, and is caused by a large and largely unidirectional flow of daily commuter traffic. About 60,000 Clark County residents work at jobs in Oregon, and they commute across either the I-5 or I-205 bridges. Fewer than a third that many Oregonians work in Clark County, with the result being that the principal traffic tie-ups coincide with workers driving from Clark County in the morning, and back to Clark County in the evening. Plainly, this is a project that is justified largely on trying to provide additional capacity for these commuters. That being the case, who are they?

Census data show that the beneficiaries of the IBR project would overwhelmingly be whiter and higher income than the residents of the Portland metro area. As with most suburbs in the United States, Clark County’s residents, who are those most likely to use the IBR project, are statistically whiter and wealthier than the residents of the rest of the metropolitan area. In addition, the most regular users of the I-5 and I-205 bridges are much more likely to be white and higher income than the average Clark County resident. This is especially true of peak hour work commuting from Clark County Washington to jobs in Oregon, which is disproportionately composed of higher income, non-Hispanic white residents.

Peak Hour, Drive-Alone Commuters Are Overwhelmingly White and Wealthy

Data from the American Community Survey enable us to identify the demographic characteristics of peak hour, drive-alone commuters going from Clark County Washington to jobs in Oregon on a daily basis. Here are the demographics of the nearly 20,000 workers who drive themselves from Clark County to jobs in Oregon, and who leave their homes between 6:30 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. daily. Some 53 percent of peak-hour, drive-alone commuters from Clark County to Oregon jobs lived in households with annual incomes of more than $100,000. The median income of these peak hour drivers was $106,000 in 2019, well above the averages for Clark County and the region.

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