Brad Van Dyke works as a dispatcher for his family’s trucking firm in Tangent, but he also lives near Interstate 5, which has regularly been a source of frustration.
“Just about every Sunday, I can watch traffic slow to a standstill,” Van Dyke said. “I just can’t figure out why they don’t have another lane. … They are so far behind for upgrading the roads for the amount of people there are living here.”
In the last two decades, traffic has increased by thousands of vehicles a day on I-5 through Linn County, and no new capacity has been added — only two lanes go northbound and two lanes go southbound.
The rise in traffic has occurred at every spot monitored by the state of Oregon in Linn County, according to the most recent figures available from the Oregon Department of Transportation.
The growth is most pronounced just south of Highway 20, a location that saw its average daily traffic increase to 55,000 vehicles in 2016, a jump of 55 percent from 1996.
Near the Jefferson Highway, where a Love’s truck stop just opened, 64,800 vehicles per day traveled I-5 in 2016, up 29 percent from 1996.
“It’s getting to the point where they’re going to have to do something,” said Dale Middlestadt, vice president of RAM Trucking in Brownsville. “I honestly think from Eugene to Salem, three lanes would be pretty good.”
The freeway congestion impacts residents including commuters, of course, but the crawl of automobiles also affects the bottom line of businesses.
When Van Dyke started working for George Van Dyke Trucking in 1987, it was commonplace for drivers to make two round trips a day down to Eugene, up to Portland and back to Tangent. “Now, that’s not even possible,” Van Dyke said. “We lose a lot of time on I-5.”
His family’s business has bought trucks with auto-shift transmissions so drivers stuck in stop-and-go traffic won’t have to worry about working the clutch constantly.
Shelly Boshart Davis, owner of Boshart Trucking, said that traffic has grown “exponentially worse” in recent years.
Just a decade ago, traveling to Salem with a load of straw was an easy route, automatic and taken for granted.
“This year, I would say that three out of every five weekdays, from July until now, had problems,” Boshart Davis said.
“Every day is a crapshoot, every day is a 50-50 chance there’s going to be a problem,” she added.
Her company stopped running routes on Fridays this summer because it seemed highly probable she’d have to reroute or shut down rigs hauling straw. “Fridays are just bad,” Boshart Davis said.
Sundays, however, seem to be the worst day of the week near Albany, especially for northbound vehicles, said state officials and business representatives. And that’s especially during the summer, Van Dyke said, when it seems every third or fourth vehicle is an RV or hauling a boat or camper.
“That traffic will just about come to a dead stop. There’s nothing really that should stop it. Once you get past the North Santiam River, it usually opens back up again,” Middlestadt said.
Safety concerns also are a major consequence of the traffic increase, Van Dyke and Boshart Davis said.
“Of course, more traffic is going to increase your likelihood of getting in an accident. And then the stress level increases, as well,” Van Dyke said.
There’s not just more people on the road, Boshart Davis said, but more people not paying attention due to cellphones or other reasons. Distracted drivers cut off big rigs and make things dangerous, she added.
Of course, things could be worse, trucking business representatives said. Just look further north.
“Portland is just insane. We have to totally plan around our trips through Portland because of the traffic,” Van Dyke said.
Though there’s no timeline for roadwork, a small section of I-5 in Linn County could get a third lane in the coming years. And trucking firm representatives said anything would likely help alleviate traffic problems on the freeway.
The Oregon Department of Transportation is scheduled to complete a design in early 2019 to add auxiliary lanes in both directions on a stretch of more than a mile between the Highway 20 and Knox Butte Road interchanges in Albany.
The cost for the design is about $3 million, but no construction funding has been identified.
ODOT officials said it was hard to determine when funding would be secured, as the Albany-area I-5 project would be competing against other roadwork for prioritization.
John Pascone, director of the Albany-Millersburg Economic Development Corp., said that an intermodal transload station planned for Millersburg could also ease traffic problems.
At the transload station, freight could be brought into that site by truck or rail, unloaded or possibly stored, then loaded again onto truck or rail for its final destination.
“The whole theory behind the multimodal facility is to get trucks off I-5” that are headed to and through Portland and get their cargo onto rail, Pascone said. And that would relieve congestion on the interstate, he added.
Boshart Davis said that an intermodal facility could help some, if it’s cost-effective. But she cautioned that there are still plenty of passenger vehicles on the roadways. “It won’t necessarily fix the problem,” Bosshart Davis said.
Pascone noted that the increased traffic could actually be good news for some businesses, such as a new Love’s truck stop that opened off I-5 near Millersburg. More traffic equals more potential customers, after all.
“It’s brand new, and they’re just packed,” Boshart Davis said.
Brian Morey, District 4 manager for ODOT, said that increased traffic is greatly beneficial for the local economy.
“If you have people traveling through the area in greater numbers, they’re going to stop and use facilities, restaurants, local gas stations and convenience stores,” Morey added.
Planning for crashes
Morey, who was born and raised in Albany, said that the traffic increases on Interstate 5 has impacted how his agency conducts road work and plans for emergencies.
Fifteen or 20 years ago, ODOT was able to close a lane on I-5 and do construction during the middle of the day. “We do all that work at night now to avoid congestion. … We don’t dare do that now unless it’s an emergency,” he added.
The increase in traffic is most noticeable on the weekends, Morey said. “The economy is booming, people are going out and camping more and boating more,” he added.
Festivals, such as the Oregon Jamboree and the Bi-Mart Willamette Country Music Festival, as well as events such as college football games exacerbate the situation, Morey said.
Since more traffic increases the likelihood of crashes, ODOT has incident responders scheduled on the weekends. That way, when there’s a wreck, ODOT workers can quickly put up warnings, clear lanes and reopen the roadway.
“We recognize this. We’re really trying to do our best to stay in front of it,” Morey said.
Morey said that the I-5 improvements between Highway 20 and Knox Butte might be relatively small, but they would have an impact.
“Anytime there’s a new project that happens, it does make our life easier. … Relieving congestion reduces the amount of crashes,” he said.