As expected, the Oregon Transportation Commission voted Thursday to move ahead with a plan to toll parts of two Portland-area freeways. But commissioners stressed that it would be years before tolling could actually become a reality.
The commission voted unanimously to send an application to the Federal Highway administration for its approval.
The commission’s vote follows through on a directive by Oregon legislators in 2017 to move ahead with electronic tolls aimed at easing rush-hour congestion on Interstates 5 and 205.
The plan sent to federal authorities calls for two projects.
Related: Portland Tolling Plan Would Cover Downtown, Abernethy Bridge
One would place tolls on a seven-mile stretch of I-5 through central Portland, from around the North Going/Alberta interchange to Southwest Multnomah Boulevard. The second would be on and around the Abernethy Bridge on I-205, which crosses the Willamette River at Oregon City and West Linn.
If tolling becomes reality, it wouldn’t involve old-fashioned tollbooths. Instead, it would be done electronically so that it doesn’t slow traffic.
Commission Chair Tammy Baney said people shouldn’t worry that they’re going to wake up tomorrow “and all of a sudden the roads are going to have a cost to get to work.”
In reality, she said, “I really want to make sure that folks understand that this is a process that is going to be years.”
One timeline presented by the Oregon Department of Transportation said it could be until 2024 before tolling is actually implemented.
Baney and other officials said they need to conduct a lengthy environmental review. They need to study such things as the availability of transit alternatives and the effect of tolls on nearby neighborhoods that could be inundated with motorists diverting from the interstate to avoid tolls.
Officials said the exact boundaries of what they will toll could be adjusted after further review. They also said that they plan to study where else they might want to add tolls in the Portland area.
There are also a number of political hurdles that could arise. Critics have already filed a ballot measure to curb the use of tolls. And some members of Congress, including in Washington, have raised objections.
Still, commissioners argued that the region has to begin moving toward tolling to grapple with the reality of the Portland area’s growing population.
Oregon has been known as a state that makes “decisions that protect the quality of life, the economy and the environment,” said Commissioner Bob Van Brocklin.
"And this falls into that category. Doing nothing is not an option here and we’re going to have to do something significant.”