It’s 2:10 p.m. on a Monday and northbound traffic has slowed to a crawl near the Interstate 5 Bridge.
Nearby, Steve Johnson is polishing off breakfast at the Cascade Grill in the Jubitz Travel Center.
Johnson’s day started in Pierce County, delivering produce to the Costco Distribution Center in Sumner. After unloading his cargo, he headed south to the Jubitz mini-city at 10210 N. Vancouver Way in Portland. His leased Freightliner Cascadia tractor-trailer sits in the parking lot.
Johnson’s been working as an independent, long-haul truck driver for a quarter-century. He agreed to an interview, between bites of breakfast, with the belief the focus would be exclusively on his evolving experience driving across the Interstate 5 Bridge. But Johnson soon steered the conversation to his opinions about truck-stop food, elephant ears, driver safety and blues festivals.
The ever-increasing freight travel times over the Interstate 5 Bridge was among the arguments Columbia River Crossing proponents cited when arguing for a replacement span.
The existing bridge was designed to handle 5,500 vehicles an hour in each direction, according to the draft Columbia River Crossing Draft Environmental Impact Statement, published in 2008. More vehicles than that use the I-5 Bridge at peak travel times, the report noted. And even back then the off-peak windows for clear sailing were vanishing.
“This increases delivery times and raises shipping costs,” the draft EIS said. “It also negatively affects this region’s economy.
“Truck-hauled freight in the Portland-Vancouver metropolitan region is expected to grow more rapidly than other forms of freight movement (such as marine-hauled freight). Truck-hauled freight is forecast to grow from 67 percent of total freight movement in 2000 to 75 percent in 2035 (Metro 2006).”
The concern for efficiently moved freight is as acute today at the Port of Vancouver as it was a decade ago, said Mike Bomar, the port’s economic development director.
“For us, this project is pretty straightforward,” Bomar said last week. “Our tenants and partners need predictability. To remain globally competitive, we have to be able to show that product can be moved in and out of the region on a consistent and efficient basis.”
Bomar noted the port’s immediate focus is improving freight mobility on local roadways that feed the port, pointing to a “Truck Data Collection Study Report” the port published last month. Among other things, the report says about 40 percent of the truck traffic heading to the port uses the Fourth Plain Boulevard corridor and 60 percent uses the Mill Plain Boulevard corridor. Also, the I-5 northbound offramp at Mill Plain Boulevard was used by nearly 37 percent of all truck traffic heading to the port.
“Replacing the I-5 Bridge and improving the surrounding interchanges,” Bomar said, “are critical to the continued success of the port.”
Avoiding the bridge
Continued delays on the bridge and the interstate system increase the appeal of barging, said Jeannie Beckett, media coordinator for the High, Wide, Heavy Corridor Coalition, an organization that represents ports along the Columbia River.
“We find that barging high, wide and heavy products on the river between our Lower Columbia River ports of Longview, Portland and Vancouver, USA to and from the Port of Morrow (Ore.), where it is transferred to or from truck, is the most cost efficient method to avoid the costly delays on I-5,” Beckett said in an email.
Hillsboro, Ore.-based Omega Morgan, which transports large-scale industrial and transportation equipment, thinks carefully before sending its rigs north and south across the I-5 Bridge, said Erik Zander, director of sales.
“We just try to avoid it,” Zander said. “We just try to get across by 6 a.m., northbound or southbound … it’s very important that you’re productive when you’re out driving. Sitting in traffic isn’t productive.”
Tom Hardman has driven a box truck for most of his 11 years with short-haul service Courier Direct of Tualatin, Ore.
Dispatchers typically schedule deliveries across the I-5 Bridge at midmorning, Hardman said.
“Simply because it’s a parking lot after 3,” Hardman said. “Now, it seems it happens any time of day.”
Johnson, the long-haul trucker, can relate. But he noted that travel times in general for his occupation have increased.
“It’s true of any city in the country,” he said.
But Johnson acknowledged the I-5 Bridge holds a special place in the long memories of experienced truckers.
Johnson was raised in Bakersfield, Calif., once lived in Salem, Ore., and now calls Salt Lake City home. He once worked as a welder but, following in his older brother’s footsteps, became a long-haul, independent truck driver. The money was better.
He’s driven all over the country, but now drives exclusively on the West Coast during his 11-hour workdays. The I-5 Bridge is a familiar part of his gig.
“I’ve been over that bridge a million times,” Johnson said. “And I’m not exaggerating.
“I know it very well. I know when to be on it and not to be on it. Morning and early evening? You might as well have me park (the truck) at the mall and I’ll send it to you by mail.”
That morning, the day before New Year’s, Johnson traveled south at about 11 a.m.
“It wasn’t too bad. I got over the bridge pretty quick,” he said. “Any time after 9, 10 o’clock at night is always good, unless there’s a wreck.”
While Johnson said travel times in all major cities have deteriorated, he rated Seattle and Portland as the worst for efficient travel.
“Only because getting in and out is relatively limited,” he said, noting the short list of options for outbound travel from each city. “L.A.? I can get out in less than an hour. Because there’s a thousand and one ways of getting out. I was born in Southern California, anyway, so I know L.A. very well.”
After nearly three decades, Johnson has formed opinions about several topics, not all of them road-related. A sample:
- Driver courtesy: “I remember back in the day it was, for lack of a better term, we were kind of like family out here. A guy broke down (and) three, four guys would pull over and help you. Now granted, this has got a lot to do with why it doesn’t happen,” Johnson said, lifting his cellphone.
- Holidays: “I’m stuck here for two days,” Johnson says, digging into breakfast on New Year’s Eve. “Stupid holidays. I have an intense hate for the holidays. In my mind, it just takes money out of my pocket. Makes me a Scrooge, but I don’t care. Christmas and New Year’s Day are just another day to me. I’m waiting for my kid right now. (He has a 7-year-old daughter and a grown son who also is a truck driver.) This is just money out of my pocket as far as I’m concerned.”
- The appeal of the job: “There is no set schedule. I just drive. Wherever they send me, I go. There’s no 9-to-5 clock in trucking. Because, really, it’s kind of nice. The idea of getting up in the morning and going to work — I’ve never liked that, ever. I can get up at 6 in the morning, I can get up at 10 in the morning. It just depends on what my day is. I got up today at 6 only because I want to get unloaded early.”
Though he laments sitting, a lot, Johnson says traveling has always appealed to him.
“That’s probably the part of my job I like the most. I’ve been in every major city. I know the streetways backwards and forwards. I made a rule a long time ago. I’m going to drive around this country. I’m going to do my job, but I’m going to enjoy the hell out of it while I can.”