Tolls a discussion item at regional conference
The prospect of tolls on some Portland area freeways is unpopular, but it may be a sign that the region will have to test multiple ways to relieve traffic congestion.
Although the 2017 Legislature directed the Oregon Department of Transportation to apply for the necessary federal approvals by the end of 2018, attendees at a regional transportation conference were told public acceptance cannot be imposed from the top.
"Local elected officials have to decide it's time to try to get this in place," said Metro's Andy Shaw. "But I think it's a mistake to focus on raising money from tolls. The point should be to better manage the system we have, to put a price on it so we understand where the capacity is."
The discussion took place Wednesday (Sept. 20) at a conference sponsored by the Westside Economic Alliance at the Beaverton Building. The conference focused on broader issues of building and funding future systems in the region, rather than specific projects.
Federal approval is required for tolls on interstate highways. Oregon has no such tolls now.
The state legislation (House Bill 2017) envisions tolls on a 20-mile stretch of I-5 between the Columbia River and its junction with I-205 near Tualatin, and about 25 miles of I-205 north through Clackamas County to the Columbia, and then on to Vancouver, Wash.
U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, a Republican who represents the Washington district north of the Columbia, has attached a tolling ban to legislation that has passed the House.
John Horvick, vice president and political director for DHM Research in Portland, did not single out that bill. But he said there is a popular belief that "congestion pricing" will not work and a persistent image of motorists having to dig for coins to pay tolls.
In most states, transponders attached to vehicles are used for electronic toll collections. Most are not in the West.
"You are changing the status quo," Horvick said. "You are changing it from something people deduce is free to something they are going to have to pay for."
Oregon's 2017 legislation does call for what is known as an "intelligent transportation system," with on-ramp meters, variable speed limits hinging on traffic flow and electronic message boards advising motorists of road conditions ahead. Some of those features are already on I-5 and I-205.
All of those measures are in effect on Highway 217 between Tigard and Cedar Mill, linking I-5 with the Sunset Highway (U.S. 26). Highway 217 is not on the tolling list.
When 217 was designed, people were very generous with on- and off-ramps," ODOT Director Matt Garrett said. "It's used as a local road, though it's not what it's supposed to be."
But the measures have made Highway 217 safer and improved the flow of traffic in an increasingly congested corridor, he said.
"We squeeze out a little more operational efficiency," he said.
Washington state has two toll roads, notably express lanes on I-405 on Seattle's eastside (between Lynnwood and Bellevue) that have been operating for two years. The other is on a state highway, also in the Seattle area.
Washington Transportation Secretary Roger Millar said the I-405 lanes are achieving a goal of a 45 mph speed for 90 percent of the time (the actual figure is 86 percent). Because they have reduced congestion, it has resulted in greater ridership and shorter travel times for public transit in that area.
Assuming that the population within Portland's current urban growth boundary will exceed the 2.2 million projected in 2040 — Metro estimated it at 1.6 million in 2015 — John Tapogna, president of the Portland firm ECONorthwest, said tolling is an inevitable alternative to new highways and expanded public transit.
"We can get started down this path of figuring out how to put prices on our network today — or we can do it five or 10 years from now," he said. "But I can tell you it will be there at some point."