December focus: To toll, or not to toll?
Truck drivers carry nearly 75 percent of all freight in the Portland metro area, taking into account transportation modes that also include rail, water, air, pipeline and multimodal methods of transporting goods.
In 2015, one of every 17 Oregonians was employed by the trucking industry, for a total of 89,110 jobs. For every dollar invested in the state's transportation industry, the trucking industry generated a return of $2.40 in 2014, according to the Oregon Trucking Associations.
Meanwhile, congestion on Portland-area freeways has continued to worsen. In 2010, congestion consumed 5 percent of all travel time in the Portland metro area. If changes are not made in the state's proposed long-range Regional Transportation Plans, forecasts predict that traffic congestion will rise to 15 percent by 2040, or an estimated 69 hours of traffic jams — two weeks' worth a year — for the average household. On the flip side, Oregon stands to gain more than $1 billion in annual economic benefits by 2040 if those improvements are made, according to the 2014 "Economic Impacts of Congestion on the Portland-metro and Oregon Economy" report published through a partnership of the Portland Business Alliance, Associated Oregon Industries, Greater Portland Inc., Metro, Oregon Business Association, Oregon Business Council, Oregon Department of Transportation and the Port of Portland.
So, should Oregon's trucking industry support congestion pricing or not? That depends on who you ask.
Randy Pozdena, PhD, CFA, senior director at ECONorthwest, says yes. Pozdena specializes in transportation economics and has developed and applied pricing tools as well as state, regional and sectoral macroeconomic forecasting and economic impact models for both the public and private sectors. Over the last 40 years, he has watched traffic congestion get worse while pricing models failed to address it, particularly in Portland.
"The main concept of congestion pricing is saying that if you contribute to the congestion that causes everyone else's trouble, you should be compensating society, or the traffic stream, by paying more," he said. "We have had a system that, unlike everything else we buy that's of varying quantity or cost, has been priced with this incredibly simplistic system of paying through a fuel tax."
Highway capacity is one element that must be considered in the debate about congestion pricing, as is wear and tear, especially when it comes to heavy trucks. Emissions play a role, though a decreasing one in the wake of more fuel-efficient vehicles. Pozdena, a former academic who has researched and written about what the fair share of congestion pricing should be for vehicles of various weight classes and types on different road systems — including the reasons heavy trucks should pay more for traveling on side streets compared to freeways — noted that congestion pricing is seeing rapid implementation around the world, with Singapore among the countries leading the way in developing congestion pricing schemes.
"I don't like some of them. Some of them are not economically correct and are bad approximations, but the concept is out there and people are getting used to the idea of paying tolls," said Pozdena, who is part of an advisory committee that is evaluating the prospect of congestion pricing for the Oregon Department of Transportation. ODOT, which was the first state transportation department in the nation to explore the effectiveness of road usage charging when it conducted two pay-per-mile pilot programs in 2006 and 2012, is exploring whether to implement tolling on stretches of I-5 and I-205 in the Portland metro area.
Pozdena and a colleague recently conducted a study for the Federal Highway Administration in its Seattle region in which they monitored vehicles via GPS to determine how drivers adapted their route depending on time of day and where tolls were going to be charged.
"We ran this experiment and behavior was modified very significantly by just giving people the information they needed to know about the cost of what they really were imposing on society," he said.
Truckers, he pointed out, should be invested in the congestion pricing debate.
"Truckers should be among the most interested in congestion relief because their time has high business value and getting to and fro quickly is a key goal. They should be interested in how pricing can help relieve congestion and how tolling will help change the behavior of people using the road system," he said. "Change comes hard to all of us but, on balance, switching to a tolling system won't cost you too much more than your current gasoline tax payment. It's just that your behavior will be moderated and the total cost of the road system will come down."
Jana Jarvis, president of the Oregon Trucking Associations, noted that the organization was intensively involved in the final packaging and negotiation of HB 2017, a major funding package for state transportation improvements that passed in July.
"We recognized at the time that there was not enough funding in that package for the improvements that are needed," she said, adding a key priority for the association is solving the bottleneck problem on I-5 near the Rose Quarter. She noted that the area is the only urban stretch of I-5 between Canada and Mexico that is two lanes on either side.
"With expanded capacity, there is expected additional funding needed," she said. "The bottom line is that we're trying to be open minded."
She acknowledged that improving the Rose Quarter bottleneck would be both expensive and logistically challenging, but stated that additional capacity is essential and congestion pricing should not be the sole solution.
"We would be opposed to that option. If we're going to toll, we'd better add some asphalt and an additional lane," Jarvis said.