Oregon transportation officials unveiled a proposal Thursday to eventually toll two stretches along Portland-area freeways.
The proposal calls for tolls along 7 miles of Interstate 5 through the heart of Portland, as well as a stretch of Interstate 205 around the Abernethy Bridge in the Oregon City area.
Oregon Transportation Commission Chair Tammy Baney said it will be several years before tolls could be implemented. The transportation commission is expected next week to approve an application to the Federal Highway Administration for the two tolling projects. There would have to be an extended environmental review before any federal approval.
Officials say the tolls would help pay for widening projects along the two freeways. And they hope tolling would help reduce congestion by encouraging travelers to seek alternatives.
“This is part of quality of life for the entire region,” Baney said at a press briefing at the Portland office of the Oregon Department of Transportation. “If we have the congestion increase that we’ve continued to have over the last four or five years, it’s not an equation that works.”
Officials say they don’t yet know how much tolls would cost. But they’ve particularly been interested in how tolls were implemented in the Seattle area. They vary depending on the time of day and amount of congestion. Whatever happens here, officials say they would use electronic tolling instead of old-fashioned toll booths.
The drive toward tolling came from a 2017 bill passed by the Oregon Legislature that directed the agency to move forward with congestion pricing on I-5 and I-205 in the Portland area.
An advisory group came up with the proposal that now appears headed toward the federal highway authorities. It calls for tolls on I-5 from the North Going Street/North Alberta Avenue off-ramps to Southwest Multnomah Boulevard, 7 miles away. Secondly, it proposes tolls “in and around the Abernethy Bridge” over I-205 that goes over the Willamette River at Oregon City and West Linn.
Both tolling areas are connected with major freeway projects sought in the transportation package passed by the Legislature.
The I-5 project calls for adding new lanes in the Rose Quarter area while the I-205 project seeks to add a third lane in each direction from the Abernethy Bridge to the Stafford Road exit.
Transportation officials said the tolling could help pay for each of these freeway projects.
Baney and Alando Simpson, another transportation commissioner, said they recognize there are a number of concerns with tolling they will try to mitigate. They include providing better transit alternatives for drivers and making accommodations for lower-income motorists.
However, tolling supporters face a number of potential political hurdles. Two Republican legislators, Reps. Mike Nearman of Independence and Julie Parrish of West Linn have already filed a proposed ballot measure requiring voter approval before any tolling of current infrastructure.
Parrish said she thought state transportation are trying to open widespread use of tolling, and she said she'd urge the federal government to reject the proposal.
"Let's be clear," she said, "their goal is to toll the entire metropolitan transportation system."
U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Washington, expressed a similar concern. In a statement, her spokesperson, Angeline Riesterer, called the tolling proposal a "Trojan horse for its ultimate plan to toll all lanes of I-5 and I-205 at the state line, a move that will disproportionately impact working-class Southwest Washington commuters."
In addition, Rep. Peter DeFazio, a Democratic congressman from Lane County, will take over the chairmanship of the House Transportation Committee in January. He has said he wants to take a careful look at tolls because he’s concerned about new financial burdens on working people.