Like a road sign ahead of mountainous curves, the Oregon Department of Transportation is trying to flag what’s ahead. For drivers in Portland, it’s tolls.
The transportation agency has recently opened a public comment period on a pair of tolling projects that could begin charging some drivers as soon as 2024, before growing elsewhere in the city in 2025.
Many specifics have yet to take shape. The tolls will be placed on both interstates 5 and 205, between the Columbia River and Wilsonville. But transportation officials have not decided on pricing or where on the freeways the tolls would be.
One fact is clear: There won’t be any toll booths or coin buckets.
The proposed tolling system would have structures over the freeway using devices to read stickers on drivers’ front windshields – without stopping – and then charge their account. Without an account, cameras would read driver’s license plate and then send a bill.
Toll prices are expected to change based on the time of day. The practice, called variable rate tolling, would raise prices during rush hours. But the hours and level of variation are not set, according to ODOT’s Mandy Putney.
The goal of tolling, Putney said, is two-fold: raise money for the growing region’s equally growing transportation costs, and deter congestion by tamping down demand for solo drivers.
“We’ve got constant traffic jams,” she said. She described traffic as costing millions of dollars “in wasted time.”
“It’s getting in the way of people’s lives in a very real way,” Putney said. “And so, we have to do something.”
I-5 and I-205 accounted for more than 23,000 crashes between 2015 and 2019, according to ODOT data. Meanwhile, the state’s gas tax has not kept up with inflation. The agency said construction costs for highways and bridges are up 20% since last year.
Tolls, Putney said, would help alleviate all of that while also allowing the state to invest in other forms of transit, such as bus lanes, light rail and bike and pedestrian paths.
Portland is currently rare among many U.S. metropolitan areas for not tolling. It’s a common practice throughout the country and increasingly so in other West Coast cities like Seattle and San Francisco.
Meanwhile, Oregon is gearing up for some massive and expensive projects. The state will have to help Washington state and the federal government pay to replace the I-5 bridge, as well as widen I-5 near the Rose Quarter in northeast Portland.
One piece of ODOT’s tolling plans will start sooner than the rest. The agency plans in 2024 to set up tolls near Oregon City and West Linn to help pay for adding extra lanes and seismic upgrades to the Abernethy Bridge.
The public can submit comments here until Jan. 6, 2023. ODOT is also planning two webinars on Nov. 29 and Nov. 30.