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Our region deserves a balanced approach to traffic problems

I have been testing tailpipe emissions since 1975. One aspect of my business for over 25 years was specializing in fuel-efficient products that reduced emissions, and we were one of the first to register with DEQ’s vehicle emission testing program.

As a business owner, I made significant investments in specialized testing equipment that measured toxic emissions and CO2. Having expertise in auto and truck emission systems not only resulted in compliance with emissions standards, but we also strived to exceed the standards while increasing fuel economy.

Technological advances have made today’s vehicles powered by internal combustion engines now capable of near-zero emissions, provided of course that the vehicle is moving at normal speeds, not stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Traffic congestion reduces fuel economy, resulting in millions of gallons of wasted fuel, and is a large contributor of vehicle-produced CO2 emissions and toxics such as nitrogen oxides.

Right or wrong, CO2 regulations are upon us and are expected to become more onerous. One of the most practical ways to accomplish CO2 reduction is to avoid the stop-and-go driving that causes huge spikes in tailpipe emissions. Hence, well-designed roads and highways that improve traffic flow will reduce CO2 emissions.

While the debate between light-rail advocates and the anti-light-rail crowd continues, practical solutions and discussion about our transportation system seem dismissed and overshadowed by special-interest pursuits. Some Metro-area officials, past and present, have been openly against reducing congestion, expecting that we will change our behavior and switch to transit.

Ironically, those who have resisted investing in traffic-flow improvements are now grappling with excessive CO2 production generated from the very traffic congestion they anticipated. There is no doubt that dense downtown metropolitan areas like Portland have different needs; however, bus service is also needed in both rural and suburban areas, yet transportation spending has not been properly proportioned among transportation modes such as bus service, light rail, bike lanes, sidewalks and roads, and it has been out of proportion with the majority of users who commute regularly.

Traffic in the Metro region appears to be worse than ever, and congestion in many areas is no longer limited to peak-hour commutes. Although underutilized in the suburbs, the usage of transit, sidewalks and bike lanes is increasing, with a renewed focus on bike and pedestrian safety, which is critical for both adults and our children.

Let’s face it, most of us choose to drive because it is convenient and safe, and we often need protection from the elements. A normal day may consist of driving our kids to school, driving to work, picking the kids up at day care, followed by soccer practice and running for groceries. In many areas of the Metro region, personal transportation is a must.

Oregonians value clean air, clean water and the natural surroundings that make Oregon a beautiful place to live. While some choose to live in dense metropolitan settings, most prefer the suburban and rural communities. Fortunately, electric vehicles give the consumer a lower-emission alternative that will save them money on fuel purchases. As technology advances, we will see more electric vehicles and soon the first hydrogen-powered cars for sale in late 2015. The need for roads and highways will continue while vehicle emissions steadily decline.

A modernized road and highway system will reduce toxic emissions, improve safety, reduce lost time in traffic and avoid the higher labor costs and lost wages that impact our local economy.

But wait, there’s more. Reducing congestion will waste less fuel, and that saves us all money. Freight will move more effectively, making our region more competitive, and we would be more likely to attract employers looking to expand in our region. That could bring new jobs and increase productivity.

We can make smarter investments in transportation that improve air quality, increase productivity and grow our economy. I believe we can develop a carbon-compliance strategy for Clackamas County and other suburban areas that will outperform Metro’s Climate Plan and for less cost. Recently, my fellow commissioners unanimously approved that concept. Metro staff designed a plan with a metropolitan focus, however. I believe it will fall short of meeting expectations in the suburban areas of our region and impede our economic recovery.

It is the responsibility of elected leaders to consider all options, especially common-sense strategies that use our tax dollars wisely.

Paul Savas is a Clackamas County commissioner.

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