Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek, expressing concerns about the skyrocketing cost of the Interstate 5 widening project in Portland, said Friday that the state needs to move more aggressively to implement tolls on the region’s entire freeway network.
With costs for the project near Portland’s Rose Center now threatening to double in cost, the Portland Democrat said legislators have a big challenge in front of them.
“One of the things I think we’re going to have to bring back to the table is more immediate implementation of regionwide congestion pricing and tolling for the entire region,” Kotek said, “from the Columbia River to the Boon Bridge” in Wilsonville.
“We have got to take this seriously,” she added, arguing that lawmakers need to come up with more money for this and other Portland highway projects to avoid cannibalizing money for road projects around the state.
Kotek made her declaration at a meeting with reporters previewing the legislative session that starts Feb. 3.
The Oregon Transportation Commission is already studying using tolls as a way to raise more money and ease congestion. The commission is also seeking federal permission to approve tolls along a 7-mile stretch of I-5 that includes the freeway widening work near Portland’s Rose Quarter and along Interstate 205 near Oregon City and West Linn.
Any move toward tolling is controversial with many voters, as well as elected officials. U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Washington, has repeatedly vowed to try to block widespread tolling on Portland-area freeways, saying it is unfair to commuters from Southwest Washington.
Oregon House Republican Leader Christine Drazen of Canby added that “this is not a moment necessarily to say, let’s jump to congestion pricing.” She instead suggested transportation dollars be shifted to the freeway widening project focused on Interstate 205.
The I-5 Rose Quarter project was originally estimated to cost $450 million in 2017. A new report from the Oregon Department of Transportation says that cost has now risen to nearly $800 million. In addition, Kotek and many local officials and activists have pushed for more robust covers over part of I-5 to help knit together the old lower Albina neighborhood that was torn apart by the construction of I-5 more than five decades ago.
The cost of those sturdier covers — which could allow multi-story buildings on them — could reach between $200 million and $500 million, ODOT estimates.
Kotek said she did not know if legislators could tackle the issue in the upcoming session or would have to wait for the longer session next year.