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Portland seeks public input on the idea of using tolls on our freeways to redirect congested traffic

DAVID F. ASHTON - ODOT District 1 Community Affairs Manager Shelli Romero, taking a break from writing down public comments during the East Portland open house. In April, Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) held several open houses to discuss imposing tolls on local freeways – or, as they call it, adding "congestion pricing" – as a strategy to improve travel times and reliability on Interstate 5 and Interstate 205 in and around Portland.

Their only open house on the east side of the Willamette River was on April 14 at Ron Russell Middle School, and THE BEE was there.

ODOT started looking into taxing segments of freeways after the Oregon Legislature approved HB 2017, "Keep Oregon Moving", last year, which committed $5.3 billion to a wide range of transportation investments.

The bill directed the Oregon Transportation Commission (OTC) to pursue federal approval for "congestion pricing" on all, or parts, of Portland-area freeways.

"We've had a huge amount of very engaged citizens come out to join us and discuss what they think about the possibility of tolling different segments of the local interstate highways," commented ODOT spokesperson Dave Thompson. "With more people moving here, and more cars arriving, we can never simply 'build our way out' of traffic congestion.

"We need take steps to help people understand the role they play in adding to this congestion, and ask themselves, as individuals, what they can do to be part of the solution."

The last major freeway in the Portland area was completed about 1980. "But we've added lanes or fixed congestion traffic congestion problems in certain sections within last year, [and in past years]; but some people don't recognize this," reflected Thompson.

At the open houses, ODOT invited comments on five options for tolling. These could include adding toll lanes, tolling an existing lane, or even tolling an entire highway segment.

Even though interstate highways don't run directly through Inner Southeast Portland, Thompson pointed out that many residents probably use I-205 when going to the airport or Vancouver.

"Most of the driving options might be along I-5 where we're talking about tolling the High Occupancy Vehicle lane, and people in this area would be affected by this," Thompson said.

However, anyone who lives near a freeway might be concerned by the tolling plan, due to the possibility of drivers getting off to avoid the toll and cutting through the neighborhoods, perhaps at a high rate of speed, conceded Thompson. Much needs to be studied, he said, to avoid unintended consequences from the tolling plan.

When "congestion pricing" is instituted, don't expect to see toll booths, Thompson remarked. "In the United States, there are more than three dozen 'congestion tolling' projects that we can look at to learn which kinds of electronic and/or license plate recognition technology would work the best here."

The online comment period closed on April 30; ODOT is to deliver a recommendation to the OTC this summer; and by December 31, the OTC will submit its "congestion pricing" proposal to the Federal Highway Administration.

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