In a world where nothing seems to unite Oregon’s trucking industry and groups that rail against freeway expansion, a rare bit of common ground emerged Tuesday: They both don’t trust the state’s latest proposal for funding big highway projects in the Portland region.
A wide-ranging bill introduced by House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, would give the Oregon Department of Transportation the green light to borrow money to pay for tolling projects on Interstate 5 and 205 near Portland, then pay off the debt with the money the tolls would generate. It will also free up money currently dedicated to a controversial highway-widening project in Portland’s Rose Quarter for other purposes.
While it still intends to complete the Rose Quarter expansion, ODOT says such an arrangement would give it the means to move forward on projects on I-5 near Wilsonville and on the Abernethy Bridge on I-205, among others.
“We currently don’t have funding for those projects,” ODOT Director Kris Strickler told the Legislature’s Joint Transportation Committee.
There are plenty of people who’d welcome the earthquake resilience and traffic improvements Strickler and his agency are promising, but most of the testimony to the bill came from opponents who are leery of the changes.
Kotek’s proposal was introduced not as a stand-alone bill, but as a wholesale amendment to House Bill 3065, a measure introduced as a “placeholder” earlier in the session. At its essence, the proposal includes a set of tweaks and additions to a massive transportation infrastructure package the Legislature passed in 2017, and opponents largely accused lawmakers of moving away from laudable goals in that plan.
In one camp, environmental advocates, anti-highway activists, and the city of Portland all testified that ODOT’s plan represents wrongheaded thinking.
Some worry ODOT will use the new funding authority to justify megaprojects that could increase highway use and lead to increased greenhouse gas emissions. At least one worried that tolls could keep traffic levels so low that ODOT would not make enough money to pay off its debt.
All warned that wording in the bill de-emphasized “congestion pricing” — a system where highway managers increase toll prices during periods of high demand — and instead uses “tolling,” which they believe shows ODOT is out only to make money.
“This amendment perpetrates a history of prioritizing the needs of highway systems at the expense of surrounding communities,” Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who oversees the city’s transportation bureau, testified. “ODOT is setting up a tolling system to fund and widen highways.”
Sarah Iannarone, a former Portland mayoral candidate and executive director of The Street Trust, agreed, accusing ODOT of “reverting to failed 20th Century tools.” Aaron Brown, who works with the group No More Freeways PDX, compared the plan to “creating a new carbon tax but using the money to build a new coal plant.”
Strickler and other ODOT staff and bill supporters all maintained that the agency was committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and said that verbiage changes did not signal it was backing away from congestion pricing contemplated in 2017.
“This effort has to take into consideration greenhouse gas reductions,” Strickler said. “It has to take into consideration congestion management.”
Sen. Lee Beyer, a chair of the committee and key author of the 2017 transportation package, agreed.
“We always, always recognized and intended to do congestion pricing in the metro area, recognizing that you can’t build your way out of it,” said Beyer, D-Springfield. “That has not changed... since day one.”
Another provision of the bill would cede control of 82nd Avenue in Portland from the state to the city. But 75% of the cost of improving the much-maligned state-owned arterial would fall to the city, an arrangement that Hardesty and House Majority Leader Barbara Smith Warner, D-Portland, said was a nonstarter.
“We have been advocating with ODOT for decades for them to make investments on 82nd Avenue and it has fallen on deaf ears,” Hardesty said. “Now we’re being told, ‘Take 82nd Avenue.’ I would hope ODOT would bring it up to a good standard.”
The Oregon Trucking Association, among the state’s biggest boosters for highway improvement and expansion, also appeared highly suspicious of Kotek’s proposal. President Jana Jarvis had a litany of concerns, ranging from where toll revenues could be spent to how proposed greenhouse gas reduction goals might be accomplished.
Most pressing for Jarvis, she said, were changes that would remove $30 million a year the state has pledged to a highway expansion project in Portland’s Rose Quarter. Under Kotek’s proposal, that money would flow to highway projects more generally, along with other possible costs like improving 82nd Avenue.
“It’s questionable why this amendment seeks to remove this project as an identifiable priority,” Jarvis said.
The Rose Quarter expansion project has been a highly contentious proposal since its infancy, with local and state officials sometimes squaring off over its particulars.
The fact the tolling proposal came from Kotek, one of the two most powerful people in the Legislature, suggests it will have momentum in the legislative session, but at least some of the criticism is likely to stick. The speaker told the committee the proposal represents “a starting point to an infrastructure conversation I believe the Legislature must prioritize this session.”
One big hurdle to Kotek’s bill: The federal government has not even given Oregon permission to toll the interstate highways where many of ODOT’s key projects would occur.
“This unprecedented approach does come with risk,” Kotek said. “And, colleagues, I’m also under no illusion that this amendment is perfect as written. I believe [it] is simply a starting point.”