Think Out Loud

In Oregon City, concerns arise over possible freeway tolls

By Elizabeth Castillo (OPB)
Feb. 1, 2023 5:58 p.m. Updated: Feb. 1, 2023 11:09 p.m.

Broadcast: Wednesday, Feb. 1

The Interstate 205 Abernethy Bridge is visible from the Oregon City Arch Bridge over the Willamette River on Sunday, Dec. 16, 2018.

FILE: The Abernethy Bridge on Sunday, Dec. 16, 2018. The bridge carries Interstate 205, connecting Oregon City to West Linn.

Bryan M. Vance / OPB


Earlier this month, Oregon City officials penned an open letter, published by the Portland Tribune, to the Oregon Department of Transportation. The letter states that the city commission is “adamantly opposed to any application of tolling in the region.”

It also details concerns over how local communities and businesses in Clackamas County will be affected by drivers who try to avoid freeway tolls.

Denyse McGriff is the mayor of Oregon City and John Lewis is its public works director. They join us with details of their concerns and what they hope to see moving forward.

The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Geoff Norcross: From the Gert Boyle studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Geoff Norcross. The Oregon Department of Transportation has big plans for I-205 through Clackamas County. The agency is looking to implement tolling on the highway over the Abernethy and Tualatin River bridges and this could happen as early as next year. It also wants to use a program of congestion pricing when tolls are higher during the busiest times of the day. The agency says this will pay for highway and bridge improvements, and relieve congestion. But at least one nearby community says “not so fast.” Leaders in Oregon City say ODOT is steamrolling through with this project, and not listening to their concerns about how I-205 tolling will hurt them. Denyse McGriff is the mayor of Oregon City, and John Lewis is the Public Works Director. Welcome both of you to Think Out Loud.

Denyse McGriff: Thank you so much, thank you for having us.

Norcross: Let me start with you, Denyse. It seems like you have a couple of overarching complaints. There’s the impact of tolling and congestion pricing on Oregon City traffic, and the cooperation, or lack thereof, that you’re getting from ODOT in addressing these concerns. So let’s take those two in turn,

Let’s first start with this plan that has been drafted by ODOT. How will it affect your town?

McGriff: Well Geoff, the long and short of it is that Oregon City will be irreparably harmed by this particular proposal. Not only will it add additional traffic jams to the diversion that we already are experiencing in our communities, and this includes West Linn as well, it will not provide for predictable trips, and it will not provide for increased safety. And I feel that the likelihood of accidents increasing will continue to escalate, because people will be impatient because they won’t be able to get to where they want to go.

The other issue is that they claim that it will improve the flow of goods and services and markets and jobs in our area. Well, if you can’t get from here to there, I don’t see how that will work.

And then the other thing that’s particularly vexing to me is that it will penalize the people who are least able to pay, and it’s not equitable in any sense of the form.

Norcross: So in other words, people may try to avoid the tolls by getting off the highway right there in Oregon City and going right through your town, and that’s going to have all kinds of adverse effects.

McGriff: Yes, they already do that now and we don’t have tolls there. As we’ve stated many many times to ODOT, this plan is really focused on the regional system, it is not focused on any local roads. And that is where everybody will go, they are already doing it now. So imagine that increasing three to fourfold, and our main street will end up being like a parking lot. It will economically harm our small businesses downtown. We’re just starting to recover from COVID. The Willamette main street in West Linn is also experiencing the same situation. Currently, people divert off at Stafford and come down through their main street, and it’s like a parking lot.

Norcross: ODOT addresses this in its literature, it says tolling and congestion pricing will actually help because people will know about the higher tolls during the busy times, and they’ll either avoid the area and take another route, or they’ll delay their trips until the highway is moving more freely. Do you not believe that?

McGriff: No, I don’t.

Norcross: Okay. Do you think it’s a bigger problem in Oregon City, just because of how your city is laid out? You have a river on one side and a bluff on the other.

McGriff: Well, we have two rivers, and the terraced areas down by the river, then the second level where I live, and then there’s a third level. So geographically, we are constrained. It is, as I stated, a problem right now. That’s part of what my concern has to be, is that we’re not really getting acknowledgment that we already are facing this particular problem, and there’s no acknowledgment that it will be exacerbated by tolling. Our concern has to do with the fact that we are going to be the first area to be tolled, with no guarantee that the other tolling areas are going to come online. And I think that is what’s most disturbing to our jurisdiction, and our commission.

Norcross: One of the goals of this project, according to ODOT, is to nudge people into public transit. Can you describe the bus or MAX situation in your part of the Portland metro? What’s it like?

McGriff: Well, it’s minimal. If you want to take MAX, you can take the bus from our transit center to the Park Avenue transit stop for MAX. That takes a little more than a half an hour to 45 minutes. You can drive there using the parking structure and then take MAX on into Portland, but that’s only if you want to go to Portland. If you want to go to Lake Oswego, or you might want to go Tualatin, or you might want to go south, there really aren’t very many options. A person could take the transit system that the city of Canby has called CAT. Again, the trips are very, very long. We don’t really have the transportation bus/MAX system in place here.

That’s one of the things I said in a previous discussion with another reporter, was that we’re about 20 years behind the eight ball in putting the transit in place, and we get the same story. “We can’t have increased ridership because we don’t have the increased ridership, and we don’t have the system to increase the ridership.” It’s like a cat and a dog chasing their tail.


Norcross: John Lewis, let’s bring you into this conversation. Your mayor has laid out all kinds of scenarios here and some effects from the tolling. Do you have modeling, do you have data, do you have something that you have studied that proves that what she says is going to happen is going to happen?

John Lewis: Yes we do. ODOT has shared some of their data with us, and we’ve utilized our expertise to review that. And the numbers are shattering. For Oregon City, the numbers that they’ve projected and acknowledged include some trips or some segments of our downtown increasing by 50% over what they are today. And as the mayor pointed out, they’re already high, we already see congestion, we already see diversion because of the 205 bottleneck. Willamette Falls Drive, which is our neighbor in West Linn, 30 to 50% increases during certain events.

If you know our downtown at all, think of the Highway 43 bridge, there’s times when that backs up from Oregon City up into West Linn at Highway 43. The current project’s got a roundabout there, imagine backed up traffic backing into a roundabout because the congestion in Oregon City is just so high. So yeah, we’ve seen some numbers, they scare us a lot. We’re surprised that ODOT doesn’t have more concern for those numbers. We’ve seen some of their solutions. We, along with others from Clackamas County, talked to them about safety concerns. And we were just surprised. There’s only so much you can do with signal timing, and we’ve maximized that. The state has maximized that through 99E. So there’s not much more we’re gonna eke out of those intersections with signal timing improvements. They’ve talked about pretty minor safety improvements that they could do today as mitigation measures, which really don’t benefit us.

So, mitigation in Oregon City is a difficult ask. Again, if you’ve been on 99E, there’s a river on one side of 99E and our downtown on the other. And you just can’t build additional capacity for vehicle traffic, let alone pedestrian and bike traffic. There’s really not great room for that. It’s frustrating. I would say what’s frustrating to me is the region probably doesn’t realize that the state is looking at tolling not only along 205, although that’s our main focus, but they’re looking at tolling along I-5, and the rest of 205 between Wilsonville, the Boone Bridge, and the Columbia River.

And we know, as professionals, that funding is an issue. This region’s got more transportation needs and we can afford to fund. So is regional tolling a solution? I don’t know. But the legislature has pointed ODOT at studying that. Why they’re studying regional tolling after implementing a project that affects Clackamas County mostly, Oregon City is the epicenter of that, why they’re implementing their study after 205 tolls just makes zero sense, because we’re gonna get hit with that right off the bat. If tolling and additional funding is needed, then a regional tolling solution makes sense, definitely before the 205 projects.

Norcross: We have a statement from ODOT. They say “we’re committed to establishing congestion pricing across the region, but we recognize tolling like this is new to Oregon. We’ve made sure local governments, stakeholders, and the public have a seat at the table so we can design a program that works for everyone.” John Lewis, how does that align with your experience with ODOT?

Lewis: Well, a seat at the table, no doubt. And this is not just Oregon City, this is across the region. Staff from Lake Oswego, Happy Valley, Gladstone, Milwaukee, Clackamas County, we’ve been at the table. The frustrating part about that is, from early on in this process, we just haven’t felt like we’re heard. The standard line is “the legislature has provided us direction, they’ve required us to pursue tolling, we’re pursuing tolling.”

Let’s face it, the bridge project that’s under construction today, I’ve not seen an ODOT project move with that kind of speed and certainty and it’s, it’s moving forward. If you look at Oregon City’s waterfront right now, we’ve got lots of equipment out there. So they’ve made great progress on that, and they’ve definitely done all the things that they need to do in terms of trying to be inclusive about getting people to the table and checking the boxes. The problem is, for certain areas, we have asked for specific changes that they’re just unwilling to consider.

Norcross: Denyse, you brought up a number of problems that this tolling plan would bring to Oregon City. Are there other impacts that you’re envisioning, like environmental issues or economic effects, that you can lay out for me?

McGriff: Yes. I’m kind of glad that you can’t see my face, because when you asked the last question, I was laughing out loud. As John stated, having a seat at the table is one thing, but being heard and getting responses that are meaningful is another topic altogether. And that’s, that’s what we have not had. The statement that they gave you is exactly the same one we’ve heard from day one.

Again, as I mentioned earlier, we received a national award in 2018 for our main street, and we’re a main street performing community. We went into COVID, our downtown association along with our Oregon City Chamber are working very hard to help our businesses come back. We are coming back. We get comments like “hometown feel, charming, we love your restaurants.” “You need more parking.” Well, you go down on a Friday night, starting at 3:30, 2:30, backup is already starting. How is that going to economically help our business owners and our retail owners downtown if the customers can’t get there because they’ll say “I don’t need to deal with this. I can go someplace else.” Again, to draw in our neighbors in West Linn, same thing with their main street, Willamette main street is coming back as well. We can’t help people get there if there is a backup in congestion. As John stated, we love the idea that the Abernathy Bridge is being improved because it’s going to be earthquake proofed, the idea of the roundabout. But again, all that traffic dumping down onto our main streets, we’re talking idling cars, which is not good, that’s air pollution, having people being impatient, and accidents, how are we going to get emergency services vehicles or police down there when people are ready to come to fisticuffs with each other because they can’t move?

There’s just so many many problems that are not being addressed. We’ve been reaching out to our legislators from day one when this bill passed, and said “you have not considered the unintended consequences.” One of them in the bill is that if you don’t pay the toll, you’re gonna have your driver’s license taken away. How is that going to help people who can pay, least able to pay, if they can’t get to work, or they can’t get to their doctor’s appointment? Those are things that we get “that’s not our problem.”

Norcross: ODOT is proposing a tolling I-205 at the Abernethy Bridge, and you’ve laid out very clearly how that would be disruptive to you. Is there another spot on the highway that you think would make more sense, and wouldn’t be as disruptive to you and your neighbors in West Linn?

Lewis: Interesting that you ask that question, because that’s been bothering us for a long time. We’re not experts in tolling or the federal process, but we asked early on for the tolling gantries (these aren’t toll booths, by the way, these are gantries, that’s the proper term for that,) we wanted them moved from where they’re currently proposed, on the bridge itself right there at the Highway 43 interchange. So if you’re headed northbound and you want to get off on Highway 43 you’ll go through a toll gantry and be charged for crossing the Abernathy Bridge. Same would be true if you continue on going south. And north, if you get onto 205 from Highway 43, you’ll be charged a toll for crossing the Abernathy Bridge headed north. So because of that, as folks that are familiar with the area know, 99E is a direct exit, 213 is a direct exit, just before getting charged. And so our position was, if you’re gonna do this before the regional tolling, move that gantry further north so that it picks up so that you wouldn’t divert. There’d be more revenues. But we already have congestion on 205 as far back as 82nd Street, which is in Gladstone. So the idea would be, why put it in the worst possible place that most supports diversion? That’s what the project team has determined. So we’re not very happy with that.

McGriff: What about the other place at the Tualatin River Bridge? Again, it will divert off at Stafford.

Lewis: Yeah, exactly. They moved that to a location near the Tualatin River Bridge, which is several hundred feet from the Stafford Road interchange, which is another diversion location where folks can use Willamette Falls, Borland Road, they’ll use it more than they already do. In fact, ODOT’s numbers increase 31% for vehicles using that route, instead of using the tolled route on 205.

So yeah, they need to push those gantries both in the Abernathy Bridge location, that needs to be pushed north, and the Stafford location needs to be moved south of Stafford.

Norcross: Okay, I’m hearing that communities all along the corridor are going to be severely impacted by decisions if this project goes through. My last question for you, Mayor McGriff, is what do you want to hear? What can ODOT do right now to help allay some of your concerns and make you believe that they actually want to partner with you on this project?

McGriff: I think number one would be responding to the many, many questions that we’ve had over the last four years. We’ve not gotten answers to those questions. That would make me feel a lot more comfortable. And don’t get me wrong, we’re working with ODOT on other projects. We don’t dislike them. Just dislike this project, because of the impact.

The seat at the table is not enough, it’s not enough to just check boxes. You have to have feedback. It’s gotta be two way feedback. We keep getting “thank you so much for your comments,” and they just keep moving right along with what they’re doing.

Norcross: Denyse McGriff and John Lewis, thank you for this discussion. I appreciate it.

McGriff: Thank you so much for having us.

Lewis: Thank you very much.

Norcross: Denyse McGriff is the mayor of Oregon City and John Lewis is the public works director there.

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