Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said Thursday that Oregon officials don't have the "luxury" to not consider charging tolls as a way to pay for roads.
When a reporter asked Wheeler about his view of legislative proposals to use tolls to fix Oregon's aging roads and bridges, the long-time elected official laughed facetiously at the "softball" question. Then he threw considerable support behind the idea, which has been controversial in the state for decades.
Wheeler told reporters in Salem that the time has come to seriously consider allowing toll roads in Oregon.
"I do think we need to evaluate that possibility," he said.
Wheeler argued the federal government has shown no interest in returning to the higher funding levels of decades past. Even amid the Trump administration's discussions of infrastructure spending, the Portland mayor advised against counting on big increases in federal transportation spending.
"I think that is a search for fools' gold," Wheeler said.
Instead, the mayor pointed to a recently-approved tax measure in Los Angeles as evidence the public can get behind tolls. Measure M would invest $120 billion in southern California's heavily used roads and bridges over the next 40 years.
"Tolling has been in existence around the globe and in other parts of the country for decades, and for us to simply say it's off the table, and we're not going to talk about it at a time when our city and regional transportation infrastructure is literally crumbling under our feet — we don't have that luxury," Wheeler concluded.
Tolling has been debated for years in Oregon, most often when it comes to building new roads or bridges.
Tolls were one of the controversial aspects of a proposed I-5 replacement bridge between Portland and Vancouver that sank the project less than three years ago.
Portland voters approved a gas tax increase last May to help rein in the city's growing street maintenance backlog.
Wheeler isn't alone among metro-area mayors interested in discussing tolls as a way to fund transportation projects. The Oregonian quotes Tualatin Mayor Lou Ogden as speaking in support of tolls, so long as they're "means tested" to protect lower income drivers.