Tolling on Interstate 5 in Portland should be “up and running” by the time a major improvement on the project is finished later in this decade, according to a top Oregon Department of Transportation official.

The statement by Brendan Finn, director of the agency’s new Office of Urban Mobility and Mega Project Delivery, is the clearest description yet of when the agency plans to implement tolling aimed at reducing rush-hour congestion on I-5.  

ODOT also is moving toward tolling on a stretch of I-205 that goes through Oregon City and West Linn. Besides raising money, the two “congestion pricing” programs are aimed at providing faster trips by encouraging many drivers to find alternatives.

Finn’s comments, made in a video conference call Tuesday, tightly link tolling to the controversial I-5 project that calls for adding freeway lanes around Portland’s Rose Quarter. The roadwork, approved by the Legislature in 2017, was originally projected to cost $450 million but the price tag could now easily rise above $800 million.

“We’re aggressively moving forward on the congestion pricing program on Interstate 5 to control that demand that gets created so we continue to meet and be consistent with our greenhouse gas emission climate goals,” Finn said. “And right now, we are on track to have that congestion pricing system up and running by the time the construction at the Rose Quarter project is completed.”

The agency has been under pressure from Gov. Kate Brown and many local officials to show that the major freeway project won’t simply create more demand and wind up just as congested as ever — except with more vehicles spewing pollutants. Construction on the project is scheduled to be finished by 2027.  Finn, who used to be Brown’s transportation advisor, said the governor made it clear last year that she wanted the tolling and Rose Quarter projects to be in sync.

Finn said one caveat is winning federal approval for tolling. While the federal government gave a preliminary thumbs-up last year, the I-5 tolling would be one of the first in the nation that tolls a section of the freeway without adding new through lanes.

Portland economist Joe Cortright, a prominent critic of the Rose Quarter project, has long argued that the agency is actually dragging its heels on moving forward with congestion pricing. He said the agency should toll that area of I-5 within the next few years and see if it really needs any expensive improvements.

He said Portlanders have seen during the COVID-19 pandemic how a drop in traffic can speed trips. Under congestion pricing, tolls are higher when traffic gets congested, encouraging many drivers to find other options.

Cortright called the project “a colossal waste of money,” particularly if it is sold as primarily aimed at improving safety. He said most of the crashes on the freeway are minor and that ODOT operates many highways with more serious safety problems.

Finn hosted the video conference call with reporters to present several outside experts who reviewed the environmental report detailing the impact of the Rose Quarter project on air quality, noise and greenhouse gas emissions. The agency claims the project would result in some improvement in those three areas.  The experts agreed with the agency’s findings but did make several suggestions for project improvements.

He said going through the outside review “is to really own that we need to do things a bit more differently.” The agency has frequently come under fire for cost overruns.