Oregon Department of Transportation leaders are looking to implement tolling on Interstate 205 over the Abernethy and Tualatin River Bridges.
The first toll could go into effect as early as next year. The state agency also plans to use a program of congestion pricing, where tolls are higher during the busiest times of the day. new revenue will pay for highway and bridge improvements, including seismic upgrades, and relieve congestion.
But leaders in Oregon City told OPB’s “Think Out Loud” that they believe the state transportation agency is steamrolling the project through and not listening to their concerns about how I-205 tolling will hurt their constituents.
Mayor Denyse McGriff said Oregon City would be irreparably harmed by the proposal, which will cause traffic congestion in communities. She worries drivers may try to avoid the tolls by getting off the highway in Oregon City and going through town, something the city already sees..
“We’re not really getting acknowledgment that we are already facing this particular problem and there’s no acknowledgment that it will be exacerbated by tolling,” McGriff said. As drivers get off I-205 to avoid highway traffic, McGriff said, the small cities roads are overwhelmed.
“Our main street will end up being like a parking lot,” McGriff said of the tolling plan. “It will economically harm our small businesses downtown. We’re just kind of starting to recover from COVID. "
In its proposal, ODOT leaders said tolling and congestion pricing will reduce traffic on the interstate. The idea is to spur drivers to either avoid the area and take another route, or delay their trips until the highway is moving more freely. McGriff does not believe this will be the case.
“We’ve been reaching out to our legislators from day one when this bill passed and said, you have not considered the unintended consequences,” she said.
She believes bumper-to bumper traffic will take over Oregon City streets, increasing pollution in the area from idling cars, among other issues. She also worries that impatient drivers will be more likely to cause accidents and delay emergency response vehicles.
John Lewis, the public works director for Oregon City, said ODOT shared some of its projections with the city. He called the numbers shattering.
“The numbers that they’ve projected and shown include some trips or some segments of our downtown increasing by 50% over what they are today,” he said “And as the mayor pointed out they’re already high, we already see congestion.”
Lewis said that while ODOT has offered some safety improvement options, mitigation in Oregon City is difficult. “If you’ve been on (Highway) 99E, there’s a river on one side and our downtown on the other,” he said. “... You just can’t build additional capacity for vehicle traffic, let alone pedestrian and bike traffic.” The tolling project doesn’t stop at Abernathy Bridge; ODOT is looking to put tollson other areas of the I-205 as well as Interstate 5.
“We know, as professionals, that funding is an issue,” Lewis said. “This region’s got more transportation needs than we can afford to fund. So, is regional tolling a solution? I don’t know.”
In a statement ODOT said, “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,” Lewis agreed that nearby jurisdictions have been invited to give input: " … We just haven’t felt like we’re heard,” he said.
McGriff and Lewis said they would be more supportive of the project if ODOT were to move the toll gantries further north, so that people won’t divert specifically to Oregon City.
The Abernethy Bridge toll could go into effect as early as next year. Construction is already underway to make the Abernathy the first earthquake-ready highway bridge across the Willamette River.