Oregon is pushing ahead with plans to toll portions of Interstate 205 and Interstate 5 in the Portland area, but it would be years before any tolls are collected.
The Oregon Department of Transportation says a two-year environmental study under federal law will begin this spring for tolling a portion of I-205 on or near the Abernethy Bridge over the Willamette River, between Oregon City and West Linn.
Plans for tolling a 7-mile stretch of I-5 through Portland would have a much bigger effect on Clark County drivers. That tolling project is lagging 12 to 18 months behind the I-205 work, in part, because of the need to coordinate with proposed tolling on the Interstate 5 Bridge replacement project.
Rian Windsheimer, ODOT’s regional manager for the Portland area, cautioned there is a lot more work to be done.
“We’re years away from this,” he told the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council Board of Directors on Tuesday. “We don’t know exactly what this looks like or how it’s going to work. And that’s why we’re here, to make sure we are getting your input.”
Specific dates to begin collecting tolls have not been determined, but it likely won’t be until at least the end of 2023 on I-205 and even later on I-5.
ODOT has tentatively identified North Going Street to Southwest Multnomah Boulevard as the section of I-5 to be tolled, but that could change as more work is done.
“There are still questions where exactly are the right places to begin and end,” Mandy Putney, ODOT’s policy and development manager in the Portland area, said during a presentation at Tuesday’s meeting.
The Oregon Legislature in 2017 passed a transportation bill directing the Oregon Transportation Commission to implement tolling on the two freeways to help manage congestion.
Putney said the tolling projects have a dual objective to generate revenue and manage demand. Tolling with variable rates also is called congestion pricing because it discourages travel during peak periods, when the highest tolls are charged, thereby reducing congestion and providing more predictability and reliability for drivers.
“Congestion pricing has proven to be a tool that can be effective in that regard,” she said.
ODOT will appoint an Equity and Mobility Advisory Committee, consisting of nonelected representatives from Oregon and Southwest Washington, to review who would benefit from tolling and whether benefits would be shared broadly. The committee also will examine whether tolling would have a disproportional negative effect on low-income and minority communities.
ODOT also will form two technical advisory groups that will include representatives from the city of Vancouver, the Regional Transportation Council and C-Tran, Putney said.
40 percent overhead?
Gary Medvigy, a Clark County Councilor and Regional Transportation Council board member, said tolling can be “phenomenally expensive,” with up to 40 percent of the revenue used for collection and other administrative overhead.
“Have they been able to come up with technology that won’t cost so much and basically waste our tolling dollars?” he asked.
Putney replied that tolling experiences in other communities will be a key piece of upcoming work, but she had no specific figures to share at this point.
Medvigy also asked if tolling alternatives have been discussed, such as providing businesses and workers with incentives for flexible work schedules.
“This tolling is going to be on the back of anyone who is commuting to work,” he said.
Putney said some businesses already offer flexible schedules and work-from-home alternatives because employees have trouble getting to work on time with unreliable commutes.
“Congestion pricing, when it is done well, is a mobility benefit for the workforce,” she said. “It might have a cost associated to it, but you are then given a much more reliable trip.”
Not everyone agrees with that assessment.
U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, has repeatedly blasted Oregon’s tolling proposal. In a Sept. 4 letter to Gov. Jay Inslee, she wrote the plan “treats Southwest Washington commuters as a revenue source without providing them with any benefit.”
The Regional Transportation Council, in a June 2018 letter to Oregon officials, said drivers will expect clear benefits from tolling.
“Our observations about toll program implementation, drawn from Washington state, find that tolling highways is a complex technical and political endeavour,” the letter says. “We believe that the traveling public will expect funded projects and corridor performance enhancements as a result.”
Lucinda Broussard, ODOT’s new tolling program manager who started her new job only a few days earlier, attended Tuesday’s meeting but did not speak. Broussard has more than 20 years of tolling experience, including 13 years as toll operations manager for the Washington State Department of Transportation.