Oregon on the road to freeway tolling
The Oregon Transportation Commission will ask the federal government's permission by year-end to impose tolls on some or all of I-5 and I-205 in the Portland area.
The tolls would be designed to raise money for highway improvements, and encourage some motorists to drive at less-busy times, alleviating congestion.
Although focus group research found most participants oppose tolling existing freeways, the commission — which oversees the Oregon Department of Transportation — has no choice. The 2017 Oregon Legislature directed it to make the request in the $5.3 billion transportation funding package it approved.
The decision was made after the Legislature determined that freeway congestion in Portland is a growing statewide problem, based on studies, surveys and public testimony. Not only are regional drivers frustrated by the increasing amount of time they are stuck in traffic, businesses in the rest of the state that must ship goods and services through the Portland area are, too.
"Portland congestion was a theme that had to be addressed. The freeway system has not kept pace with population growth in the region, including Clark County," ODOT Assistant Director Travis Brouwer told Pamplin Media group editors and reporters last Friday.
The commission will hold a meeting on the options it is considering on July 12 at the University Place Hotel and Conference Center, 310 SW Lincoln St in Portland. It is scheduled to decide on a direction by Aug. 17 and approve a specific proposal on Nov. 16. After presenting that to the Legislature, the commission plans to submit the request to the Federal Highway Administration by Dec. 31.
At this time, five options are under consideration. They range from tolling only a small portion of I-205 to tolling all of I-5 and I-205 from the Washington border to their southern juncture north of Wilsonville. A consultant, New York-based WSP USA, has recommended starting by tolling parts of I-5 and I-205, and then phasing in tolls for all the Portland stretches of both freeways.
In making its decision, the Legislature concluded that state, regional and local governments cannot build the Portland area out of its congestion problem. There is not enough readily available land or money for new freeways, in part because state gas tax revenues are not keeping up with construction or even maintenance costs.
So the decision was made to pursue the idea of tolling existing freeways to reduce demand during peak hours and help generate enough money to fix existing bottlenecks, including the I-5/I-84 interchanges in the Rose Quarter, the Abernathy Bridge on I-205 and the nearby stretch of I-205 that narrows from three to two lanes of traffic. The tolls could be increased when traffic is the heaviest and reduced when it is lighter, a concept called "congestion pricing" and "value pricing."
"We need to look at it as a user-based system," Brouwer says.
No specific rates or hours for imposing the tolls have yet been divulged.
The commission is also studying ways to discourage drivers from diverting onto residential streets to escape the tolls, and to reduce the cost burden on lower-income drivers. All have been publicly discussed at a series of open houses and other forums over the past year.
There is no guarantee the federal government will approve the request. Even if it does, the tolls probably cannot be fully imposed for 10 to 15 years after that.
So far, the most vocal opponent has been Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler, a Republican from Clark County, who has introduced legislation in Congress to delay the tolls from being imposed even longer.
The Portland City Council has also directed the Portland Bureau of Transportation to study imposing tolls on roads and bridges in the city. A report on options is due by the end of the year.
Studies chart increased congestion
There is no doubt that Portland-area freeways are at or over capacity at peak hours, meaning that even slight increases in traffic greatly increase congestion and delays. The results have been documented by ODOT in numerous studies, most recently in the 2016 Portland Region Traffic Performance Report that was released last August. It found that although the population increased only 3 percent from 2013 to 2015, the hours of congestion increased 13.6 percent and daily vehicle hours of delay increased 22.6 percent.
"Data for the region's six freeways show increasing congestion, decreasing travel speeds, greater delays and unreliable trip times," the report found. "Traffic congestion in the Portland region can now occur at any hour of the day, including holidays and weekends. It is no longer only a weekday peak hour problem."
The cost to the economy has been repeatedly confirmed in a series of reports published by the Value of Jobs Coalition, which includes many freight-dependent businesses. The most recent one, published in 2014, found that significantly reducing congestion would generate 8,300 jobs and $1.1 billion in benefits in the region by 2040.
But public testimony at commission forums indicates freeway tolls will be a tough sell. Except to construct the I-5 bridge between Portland and Vancouver, freeways have not been tolled before in Oregon and Southern Washington. Although drivers have helped pay to build and maintain them with gas taxes and motor vehicle registration fees, for many, the idea of also paying for trips seems onerous.
"Most Oregonians are not familiar with tolling, and congestion and value pricing is even more confusing," Brouwer says. "People agree that congestion is a big problem and government should do something about it, but they are skeptical this will work. And they're concerned about low-income residents and want to know where the money (raised by tolls) will be spent."
No toll booths needed
Other metropolitan areas have added tolls for express lanes and new projects in recent years. They include: the Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco areas in California; the Austin, Dallas, and Houston areas in Texas; and parts of Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Minnesota, North Carolina and Utah.
"Portland is one of the larger metro areas that hasn't implemented congestion pricing," Brouwer says.
In those and other areas, technology has eliminated the need for toll booths that slow traffic. Instead, scanners read tags, transponders and license plates to automatically charge vehicle owners when they use tolled lanes or freeways. The charges can be deducted from pre-established online accounts, and increase with fines if they are not paid.
Brouwer also says that for tolling to effectively reduce congestion, other transportation options must be substantially improved to give drivers more options, including transit, carpooling, bike lanes and pedestrian paths.
"We have to look at the transportation system holistically," Brouwer says.
Tolling concepts being studied
The five tolling options currently being considered by the Oregon Transportation Commission are:
A. Tolling the northbound lanes of I-5 between NE Marine Drive and NE Going Street.
B. Tolling all lanes of I-5 between NE Going Street and SW Multnomah Boulevard.
C. Tolling all of I-5 and I-205 between the Washington border and their southern merger.
D. Tolling I-205 between SW Stafford Road and the north end of the Abernathy Bridge.
E. Tolling the Abernathy Bridge on I-205.
Consultant WSP USA has recommended beginning with concepts B and E, and then C in phases.
Upcoming public and private forums
To see a complete list of upcoming public and private forums on the options, go to https://www.oregon.gov/ODOT/Pages/VP-join-conversation.aspx