The freight fable: Moving trucks is not longer the key to economic prosperity

City Observatory

It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.  Upton Sinclair

It’s even harder to get a trucking industry lobbyist or a highway department booster to understand something when their salaries depend on not understanding it.

Oregon’s economy has de-coupled from freight movement; our economic success stems from doing things other that simply moving more and more freight.

State officials and the trucking lobbyists they’ve hand-picked as “public” representatives are selling myths in an effort to justify wasting billions to expand highways.

Here’s a simple fact:  Truck movements across the Columbia River in Portland are down 19 percent in the past fifteen years.  This fact comes from data tabulated by the Oregon Department of Transportation, which has automatic vehicle counters on the roadways leading up to the I-5 and I-205 bridges that connect Oregon and Washington.  Here’s the data, which is taken directly from the traffic counting website operated by ODOT.  It shows heavy freight truck movements.

For highway boosters, this simple fact is an inconvenient truth.  Here’s why:  they’re trying to justify a nearly $5 billion freeway widening project on Interstate 5 as somehow essential to accomodating a flood of trucks, which if they’re delayed even slightly, will somehow mean the demise of one of the nation’s most robust metropolitan economies.  Don’t get us wrong, traffic congestion is a routine feature of successful metropolitan economies, but there’s actually no evidence that adding a freeway lane (or three) has any measurable effect on a metro area’s economic prosperity.  But ODOT and freight industry boosters are keen to argue that freight volumes are increasing in lock step with the economy, and if they’re hindered in any way, our economic ruin awaits us.

The trouble is, as this simple chart shows, that’s not true.   Despite declining freight movement, the Oregon economy has boomed.

The Portland and Oregon economies rebounded sharply after the 2007-2009 recession, and they did so without increasing the number of heavy trucks moving across the Columbia River on the I-5 and I-205 bridges. The truckers and highway types are likely to want to blame the recession, but what’s really striking is that through 2019, I-5 and I-205 truck traffic never recovered to pre-recession levels after a decade of robust economic growth.  Not only that, but truck volumes actually declined from 2013 through 2016, as the economy was growing rapidly.  The key takeaway here is that Oregon’s economy grows just fine, thank you, even with no more trucks crossing the Columbia River.

But this inconvenient truth was treated with dismay and denial, by the Washington Trucking Association’s lobbyist, Sherri Call, nominally a “public representative” on the Community Advisory Group for what the Oregon and Washington Transportation Department’s call the “I-5 Bridge Replacement Project” but which is really meant to be a rubber stamp for a five-mile long, 12-lane wide freeway that just happens to cross a river.  We submitted the ODOT data shown in the chart above for the record at the Community Advisory Group’s March, 24, 2021 meeting.  Call was apoplectic at the idea that anyone could suggest that freight volumes were going down.  Describing a discussion in one of the meeting’s breakout groups she said:

We talked a little bit about the public comment process and I was glad to hear [Project Manager] Greg [Johnson]’s commentary on that, you know, if I share that it kind of got under my skin a little bit, a caller that called in and mentioned the reduction in freight volumes over the years and caused me to go on and do some offline research and that’s actually not the case that has increased and not only that the general traffic has increased as well. And, you know, Greg [Johnson], very eloquently I think put it there basically the people that are calling in are not held to the same standard as, as you folks in the bridge office who are accountable not just to the public but to people internally and people on both sides of the state so that, that is, you know, good for us to be mindful of.

Notably, Call didn’t cite any actual data to prove her point.  But she did confide that she shared her concerns with the project’s manager Greg Johnson, who claimed, according to Call, that “people calling in aren’t held to the same standard” as the project’s promoters in the transportation department.

For the record, it’s important to note that like Call, Johnson didn’t offer any data showing an increase in freight volumes on I-5 across the Columbia River.  Simple asserting an article of faith—and wrapping it in a little sidelong character assassination— was apparently sufficient.  As Upton Sinclair said, it’s difficult to get a person to understand a fact when their salary depends on them not understanding it.

But again, here’s the simple truth:  the volume of freight trucks moving on I-5 and I-205 across the Columbia River is, and remains, lower today than 13 years ago.  And not by a little, by a lot—almost a fifth.  The ODOT data show that there are half a million fewer trucks using the two bridges today than in 2006.

And miraculously, the Oregon economy has not collapsed.  In fact, since 2006, both the Oregon and Portland metro economies have outperformed the US economy, whether measured by employment or gross domestic product.  We’ve managed to grow our economy with less truck movement than we had more than a decade ago.  What that signals is that economic success isn’t simply a product of moving more stuff.  In fact, the most successful economies are the ones which generate new ideas and new services, not simply move more stuff. In the 21st century, success is about doing more with what we have, or even less, and that’s where Oregon has excelled. Our old, resource-based economy could grow only by cutting and shipping more trees or grain; but today, Oregon’s economic growth is driven by a range of knowledge-based industries that expand their output, income, and jobs, without moving ever more trucks.

In the end, though, this argument boils down to simple facts.  If Sheri Call and Gregg Johnson are right, that more and more trucks are needing to move across the Columbia for our economy to succeed, and that widening I-5 at a cost of billions will somehow stimulate more industrial activity, let them present the data, any data, to prove that.  So far they haven’t.  All we have so far is snide claims that they’re somehow held to a higher standard of proof, something they’ve manifestly failed to demonstrate.

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