On the road again, with too many others

Back in the day, I coached youth soccer, which for years meant regular trips north to Eugene, Salem and Portland. It got so I knew every turn on I-5 before I came to it and could visualize any point on the freeway and conjure up a mental image of the turns that were on either side of it for miles.

The kids fledged, the trips north subsided and after a brief period of mourning the loss of those adventures, I came to enjoy not loading up the SUV every other week for the 500- or 600-mile round trip.

Then our son and his wife had a baby. In Portland. So for the past two months, we've found ourselves back on the road again, regularly. While the motivation and destination — a home instead of a soccer field — are different, I-5 and the twisting turns of its southern half feel very familiar.

But there's a noticeable difference. It seems like there are a lot more cars, and trucks, between here and there. Who are all these people and why do they feel it's necessary to hit the highway at the same time I want to sit back and enjoy the open road?

It starts between Medford and Grants Pass, which not so long ago seemed like a rural stretch of the interstate. Now, by the time you get to Rogue River, you usually find yourself hunkered down in a parade of vehicles clogging both lanes. Traffic moves along, but the open road is usually nowhere in sight.

Then come the Four Passes of the Apocalypse — Sexton, Smith Hill, Stage Road and Canyon Creek — with their imposing sets of downhill twists and turns. Is it just me, or is every downhill corner occupied by a big rig that seems to set its outside wheels on the lane stripes while traveling a little bit faster than it should? Nothing like an 18-wheeler rumbling within arm's length of you as you white-knuckle it through a downhill curve.

About 100 miles to the north you hit the state's population center, the Willamette Valley. And just when you were thinking there was a lot of traffic between Eugene and Salem, you come to Wilsonville. If you're not stuck in bumper-to-bumper, barely moving traffic, you can be pretty sure the poor SOBs on the opposite side of I-5 are.

If you worried that advancing years and shakier nerves were the root cause of your freeway angst ... you're probably partially right. But you've also got statistics on your side. Here are a few of the average I-5 daily traffic increases between 2000 and 2016:

  • Medford viaduct — 44,900 in 2000, 52,300 in 2016, a 16.5 percent increase.

  • Just west of Rogue River — 33,300 in 2000, 39,000 in 2016, 17.1 percent.

  • Just north of Wilsonville —  103,700 in 2000, 129,400 in 2016, 24.8 percent.

The single busiest stretch of I-5, in case you wondered, is near its intersection with Highway 217 at Tigard, where an average of 164,500 vehicles made their way north and south on an average day in 2016.

One more stat (all of which are courtesy of the Oregon Department of Transportation): Motorists traveled 36.7 billion miles on the state's public highways in 2015. That was almost 3 billion miles more than in 2000.

A conclusion and a question: We need more traffic lanes or people need to drive less (except for me, of course, when I'm going to see my granddaughter). And tell me again why we aren't investing more in mass transit?

— Bob Hunter is associate editor of the Mail Tribune. Reach him at bhunter@mailtribune.com.



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