Portland’s city council has unanimously approved a resolution in support of tolling to ease traffic on Interstates 5 and 205.
At the crux of the debate is the stretch of I-5 that cuts through the city’s Rose Quarter.
The Oregon Department of Transportation says it’s often backed up for 12 hours a day.
The state Legislature has approved a $400 million plan to add lanes and improve it, but also directed the Oregon Transportation Commission to develop a proposal for tolling on I-5 and I-205 in the Portland region.
Critics say widening the highway will just encourage more people to drive — a problem transportation planners call "induced demand."
Portland Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who runs the city transportation bureau, said he thinks the state should try tolling before it moves forward with the freeway expansions.
“Let me be clear: In my opinion, congestion pricing should happen in these corridors before any shovels break ground,” he said.
Under congestion pricing, the cost of using a road or bridge rises depending on the time of day or amount of traffic. It's a strategy that a number of cities have adopted recently, including London, Stockholm, New York and Seattle.
The City Council’s resolution also directed the city’s transportation bureau to study whether congestion pricing strategies could improve other bottlenecks.
Saltzman and Mayor Ted Wheeler said they see congestion pricing as a key strategy to ease the city’s growing pains while raising new revenue for badly needed investments in street maintenance and public transit.
A variety of transportation and environmental organizations testified in support of the resolution, including the Port of Portland, Portland Walks and the Oregon Environmental Council.
Opposition came from members of the group No More Freeway Expansion. They say the council needs to more forcefully oppose the state’s proposal to widen the highways.
Economist Joe Cortright called congestion pricing the only way to reduce congestion in an urban setting.
“What this project amounts to, effectively then, is a half a billion dollars to the freeway gods or the world’s most expensive piece of performance art,” he said.
The Oregon Department of Transportation has said that the Rose Quarter Highway project will provide improvements that go beyond simply adding lanes to the freeway.
Those include adding a shoulder so that disabled cars can safely pull out of traffic, covering the freeway and improving bicycle and pedestrian facilities on nearby surface streets.