The License Plate Game No Longer Fun in PDX

When my two girls were younger, we’d occasionally pass the time on long road trips with the license plate game , a fun, competitive road travel challenge — be the first to spot an out-of-state license plate and call out the state. Whoever had the most at the end of the game, or whenever they got bored, wins. Simple.

That was over ten years ago…back then, out-of-state plates were pretty rare, so boredom quickly ensued and the final score was always pretty low. Now, with one daughter in college and another a junior in high school, I wonder what the score would be today in 2016. You see, Portland, Oregon has rapidly morphed from a sleepy, under-the-radar, big-city wannabe to the new mecca for the masses— the hip, city du jour made popular nationwide by television shows like “Grimm” and “Portlandia”, and highly-ranked on such eclectic lists as Top 20 Beer Cities , Best Cities for Seniors, and the #2 Bike-Friendly City in the country.

On one hand, this recent influx of new citizenry bodes well for Portland — a city that has desperately needed a fresh perspective for decades, and generally lacks legitimate cultural diversity and acceptance. On the other hand, a population explosion on the scale we’re seeing today in Portland is decidedly unwelcome. You see, Portland, Oregon — for all it earthly majesty, eclectic allure, and general quirkiness — lacks the requisite transportation, car-friendly infrastructure to support its new-found popularity and cache, especially in the western ‘burbs, where young technology newbies and their families are staking their roots in droves. To put it in numbers perspective, the Portland metro area grew by nearly 115 people per day from July of 2014 to July of 2015, according to the Census Bureau.

Rapid increases in population on this scale brings with it a host of issues (housing, education, jobs, city and social services, healthcare, etc.), but the focus of this blog post is transportation — already a nightmare of a problem that grows more scary every day in this city.

I live in the western suburbs of downtown Portland, about 20 miles west of City Center, in the epicenter of the urban sprawl and the hot real estate markets of Hillsboro, Beaverton, Bethany, Tigard, and others.

Let me note first that the Portland-area traffic problems are by no means limited to western Portland neighborhoods. Residents in the northern region (I-5), south (217), and east (84/205) are all struggling mightily with rush-hour commutes that are no longer reasonably measured by the clock.

In fact, according to The Oregonian in a recent article, Portland now ranks 10th in the entire nation in traffic congestion. The paper also wrote in the spring of 2015 that “ The Portland metropolitan area — Clackamas, Columbia, Multnomah, Washington and Yamhill counties in Oregon and Clark and Skamania counties in Washington — grew by an estimated 26,000 in population, an increase of about 1.7 percent. That’s the area’s biggest annual increase in population since the 2010 Census.”

Further, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s latest report, Portland now ranks as the 29th most populous city in the country at 583,776, with a metro population at 2.4 million, but all indications are that number has markedly increased in just the last few years due to Portland’s increasing nationwide popularity.

In the latest United National Movers Study for 2016, the national moving company again ranked Oregon the top inbound destination with 69 percent of moves to and from the state being inbound. Here is the quote:

“Oregon is the most popular moving destination of 2015 with 69 percent of moves to and from the state being inbound. The state has continued to climb the ranks, increasing inbound migration by 10 percent over the past six years.”

See the Migration Map from 1978 through 2015 on

Where Are They Coming From?

A commute on the 26 freeway (the only East-West commuting option for the entire western suburbs heading into downtown, it should be noted) reveals an exasperating array of out-of-state license plates from all over the US and Canada, giving rise to my frequent question, “what are they doing here?”.

So, where are these new road-hoggers coming from? My un-scientific survey reveals the top 5, in order, with commentary:

#1 Washington
Seriously, what are all our neighbors to the north doing here? The north-bound left lane to 405 heading into the tunnel is probably 90% Washington plates. So they live in Washington (a state with no property taxes) and work, and shop, in Oregon (a state with no sales tax). Yep, that seems fair. They clog Oregon roadways, take Oregon jobs, and buy goods in Oregon, but add ZERO value to Oregonian’s quality of life. Yeah, that’s fair.

#2 California
I get it — who wouldn’t want to trade that drought-stricken, traffic-snarling, concrete jungle grind for the natural splendor and laid back lifestyle of Oregon?

#3 Idaho
Our neighbor to east, they’re leaving Idaho in droves. I get the proximity and land of opportunity thing, but really, Idahoans?

#4 Texas
With the energy sector meltdown, they’re leaving in droves from there, too. Portland, anyone?

#5 Arizona
Attracted by Portland’s growing tech economy.

Honorable mentions — Colorado, Hawaii (yes, Hawaii), New York.

Where do we go from here?

As much as I’d love to end this post on a positive note, unfortunately for both old and new Portlanders, it’s not good news.

After a particularly brutal commute taking my daughter to school downtown one day last winter (a 30-mile round trip commute that took 90 minutes), I crafted a fiery, yet articulate and reasonable, email to the Oregon Department of Transportation to both vent and find some glimmer of hope for the future of Portland commuting. That email made me feel better when I hit SEND, but made my head and stomach hurt when I got the REPLY.

According to Lili Boicourt, Community Affairs Coordinator of the Oregon Department of Transportation - Region 1, there are “no immediate plans to widen U.S. 26 beyond the three lanes in each direction. Ultimately, as U.S. 26 heads into Portland, traffic is funneled into three lanes through the Vista Ridge Tunnels. That’s the big pinch point and one that is prohibitively expensive to solve.”

Focus on the last sentence “…prohibitively expensive to solve.” Government leaders, both past and present, as well as our city planners, likely never envisioned a future where Portland finally grew up to become the metropolis it yearned to be. And that tunnel…that damned tunnel. Our past and current city planners have unfortunately painted us into a (tiny) tunnel.

…the population growth is outpacing our tax dollars.

-Lili Boicourt
ODOT Community Affairs

If the Vista Ridge tunnel problem is unsolvable, that leaves the construction of a new freeway for Westsiders heading into and out of downtown. (and please don’t comment below on adding more MAX lines and buses instead of building new freeways. The US is a car culture, people love their cars, and they’ll continue to drive them until the freeway is a literal parking lot). And anyone who has ever lived in Oregon knows that the budget required to fund a major freeway expansion project will never materialize within the current socio-political climate. The environmental hurdles alone would prevent any reasonable plan from materializing, and with our schools and social services near the bottom of most major city rankings, Portlanders are unlikely to see any new transportation funding to solve the problem. Oregonians cling to their NO NEW TAXES mantra like Texans cling to their guns. The only hope is a major windfall from federal infrastructure funding, as promised by both candidates running for President this year.

So, without a new freeway and no viable west-east alternatives, the traffic on the 26 freeway will grow exponentially worse as the new citizen crisis continues.

It’s time to stop the madness. For anyone considering moving to Portland — please don’t. While the area offers natural beauty and is generally a good place to raise a family (noting the issues with public school education, ranking 43rd in the country), the city lacks the proper transportation infrastructure, housing, employment opportunities, and financial resources to support a larger population base.

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