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The Fight Over Tolls In Oregon's Transportation Bill


From light rail to commuting by bike, the Portland area has a long history of transportation experimentation. 

Now, the big transportation bill in the Oregon Legislature calls for another innovation beloved by traffic reformers: congestion pricing.

The measure orders the Oregon Transportation Commission to move forward with implementing variable tolling in conjunction with major freeway projects on Interstates 5 and 205.

The idea is that higher prices to use roads can manage congestion.

“That’s what make sense,” said Sen. Lee Beyer, D-Springfield, who co-chairs the transportation panel that came up with the $8 billion bill now facing an uncertain fate in the Legislature. “Just building capacity by itself doesn’t do anything. That’s the lesson learned from all of the major cities around the country.”

Jennifer Dill, who heads the Transportation Research and Education Center at Portland State University, said researchers have long agreed about the power of congestion pricing.

“It’s still a common question I get … . How do we solve the congestion problem?” Dill said. “My answer most of the time is: Well, we have to start charging you a lot more.”

Road expansion projects can sometimes produce temporary relief, she said, but they can often generate more demand that fills them up. People will be quicker to go to the grocery store during rush hour, or they might abandon public transit.

Cities such as London, Stockholm and Singapore have been able to dramatically reduce traffic in their central cities by levying a charge on vehicles entering these areas, Dill said.

Attempts to establish similar congestion zones in San Francisco and New York ran into political roadblocks. But using tolls to manage traffic — once uncommon in the West outside of bridges — is being used more in California and Washington.

Signs show the rates for using the express toll lanes for traffic headed southbound on Interstate 405, Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016, in Bothell, Washington.

Signs show the rates for using the express toll lanes for traffic headed southbound on Interstate 405, Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016, in Bothell, Washington.

Elaine Thompson/AP

In Seattle, for example, several projects are up and running, with more in the works. On Interstate 405, which curves around the city on the east, a 17-mile stretch of road now has a toll lane in each direction. During weekday hours, motorists pay between 75 cents and $10 to use them, depending on how heavy traffic is at the time. (Three-person carpools can travel free during peak commute times; two-person carpools are allowed at other times.)

The Seattle system operates quite differently from the old-fashioned tollbooths commonly seen in the East. Regular commuters typically use a window sticker that electronically records their use of the lanes. Visitors without a pass have a picture taken of their license plate and are mailed a bill.

In Oregon, the legislation calls for the state Department of Transportation to move forward with congestion pricing in conjunction with highway improvements at the Rose Quarter on I-5 and in the Oregon City area on I-205.

Those two projects, along with one to widen stretches of Highway 217 in Washington County, would altogether cost more than $1 billion.

The Oregon Department of Transportation along the Capitol Mall in Salem, Oregon, Saturday, March 18, 2017.

The Oregon Department of Transportation along the Capitol Mall in Salem, Oregon, Saturday, March 18, 2017.

Bradley W. Parks/OPB

Many local officials and powerful transportation groups are pushing hard for these projects, saying they will help relieve the increasing difficulty of moving people and freight through the region’s highways. 

ODOT says hours lost to travel delays on I-5 in the Metro area grew by 17 percent between 2013 and 2015. On I-205, the hours of delay increased by a much larger 48 percent.

“I think adding some lanes and some capacity is going to make a lot of difference in our ability to move through this region,” said Jana Jarvis, president of the Oregon Trucking Association, adding that the region is “20 years behind” in keeping up with demand.

But there is also a lot of skepticism among environmentalists and transportation reformers about the value of pouring another billion dollars into freeway building.

Portland economist Joe Cortright helped fight the failed Columbia River Crossing bridge and highway project. He said the region should be looking for ways to reduce traffic, not increase it.

“We know that adding road capacity stimulates more traffic and produces more greenhouse gas emissions,” he said. “So we know it’s fundamentally at odds with our stated goal to help protect the planet.”

Several key groups are seeking to marry the freeway projects with their desire to get congestion pricing off the ground in Oregon.

Metro and the Port of Portland have joined forces with the Oregon Environmental Council and the Nature Conservancy to lobby for strong congestion pricing in the legislation.

Chris Hagerbaumer, the environmental council’s deputy director, said she would like ideally to first implement tolls and then see if the roads still need to be widened.

“Unfortunately, the way the system is set up, you have to get approval from the federal government and go through a lot of hoops to sort of get to the point where you could get peak-period pricing,” she said. “And I think many legislators feel they want to bring home the bacon. ‘Let me give my constituents this new capacity.’”

Cortright, the Portland economist, is skeptical that congestion pricing would actually result from the bill. He noted that a 2009 bill also pushed ODOT to implement this form of tolling — but after studying the issue, the department decided it wasn’t feasible.

“There’s a really strong bureaucratic resistance to charging prices for roads,” he said.

Travis Brouwer, the department’s assistant director, said expansive forms of congestion pricing have been hard to implement in the U.S. He said the agency’s earlier study, prompted by the 2009 bill, found it could actually cost more money to set up a tolling system than it would raise.

Brouwer said he envisions the agency working with local governments and other interest groups to “try to develop a good option or two that we could take to the federal highway administration” for approval.

The Metro-port-environmentalist coalition is also lobbying for strong language they hope will ensure the department moves forward with tolling.

Hagerbaumer and other congestion pricing supporters hope the legislation opens the door to the eventual widespread adoption of the practice in the region. They say it could be particularly important if and when self-driving vehicles become common.

In the meantime, however, congestion pricing continues to strike many people as wrong-minded.

Oregon City Mayor Dan Holladay said he hopes the transportation bill passes and provides money for the big I-205 project in his area. The state is looking at widening a 7-mile stretch of freeway that narrows to two lanes.

But Holladay also hopes congestion pricing never becomes reality.

“How is that fair to the minimum wage or medium wage guy that can’t change his traffic patterns because he has to be at work at 7 o’clock and he gets off at 3:30 or 4 o’clock?” Holladay said. “And you’re kind of stuck with where you are.”

Hagerbaumer said it’s important motorists have options, which is one reason the transportation bill also includes more than $100 million a year for additional transit.

Dill, the PSU professor, noted that many lower-income workers can sometimes need a faster trip even more than the wealthier executive. They could face the loss of a job if they are late or a big fine for picking up their kids late from daycare.

The transportation bill is a top priority for the governor and legislative leaders. But it faces tough odds.  Many groups are upset about the $8 billion in additional taxes spread over 10 years. 

And Democrats and Republicans have long been at odds about whether to modify a clean-fuels law that GOP lawmakers claim is a hidden tax on Oregonians.

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