Process Starts to Weigh Tolling Portland Highways

A bi-state committee assigned to look at congestion pricing to ease congestion on major Portland highways may find it tough-sledding to convince regional commuters of its value before submitting recommendations this summer.

A bi-state committee assigned to look at congestion pricing to ease congestion on major Portland highways may find it tough-sledding to convince regional commuters of its value before submitting recommendations this summer.

The process has begun to examine the use of tolling as a strategy to ease congestion on I-5 and I-205 in the Portland metropolitan area. It has five more meetings scheduled before a June deadline to produce recommendations to the Oregon Transportation Commission.

At its first meeting last week, the 25-member regional tolling policy committee wasn’t considering old-school toll booths where motorists toss in coins or use credit cards. The panel’s focus instead is on “value pricing,” which is a polite way of saying rationing available roadway space for those willing or no other choice but to pay a toll.

Tollways in Oregon are ancient history. There were tolls on Barlow Road from 1864 to 1919 and Santiam Wagon Road from 1861 to 1915. Since then, nada.

Tolls have been used to pay for the Astoria-Megler Bridge, Hood River Bridge and Bridge of the Gods. Tolling was considered, but not pursued as a funding option in the debate that dead-ended over the Columbia River Crossing. The prospect of tolls on a new I-5 Columbia River Bridge and the existing I-205 Glenn L. Jackson Bridge prompted Washington Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler to try to block the idea in federal legislation. There are Washington representatives on the committee.

A new bridge to remove the bottleneck on I-5 at the Columbia River isn’t on Oregon’s transportation agenda at this point, so the tolling discussion has more to do with stretching the capacity of existing Interstate highways in Portland.

The review of tolling comes as grumbling grows for the increased traffic and lengthening gridlock on Portland’s major highways. The 2017 Oregon legislature approved a major transportation funding measure aimed at dealing with congestion in Portland and bolstering public transportation. Few think the improvements paid for by the funding measure will derail traffic delays in Portland, thus the review of tolling options.

Congestion-based tolls exist in Washington, Texas and Maryland, according to the consultant advising the committee. The idea is to give motorists a financial reason to change when they commute to work or whether they commute as often or at all. Of course, tolling some roads, but not others can incentivize finding a new route to work or drive on side roads. Workers who commute longer distances and have fixed work schedules may bear more than their share of the cost. And the money generated by tolls may not go to pay for any roadway expansion.

There is no guarantee the committee will determine that congestion-priced tolling is a viable strategy for the Portland metropolitan area – or could gain a federal waiver that would be required.

However, Oregon transportation officials and some policymakers see congestion pricing as a way to thread the needle in a state that concentrates development within an urban growth boundary and is reluctant to add lane miles to its roadway system.

Testimony will be taken at upcoming committee meetings, and much of it can be expected to be hostile to tolling. Some of the reader comments posted in the Portland Tribune after its story about the first committee meeting are a foreshadowing. “This is a money grab.” “Toll policy moves more drivers to side streets. Incredibly stupid.” “How about equity.” “Sure, I can just go to work late and leave early to avoid the highest congestion pricing. Then I’ll get fired.”

The next meeting is scheduled for December 7.