Portland-area motorists face the possibility of tolls on Interstate 5 and Interstate 205 as part of a $5.3 billion transportation package approved by the state Legislature earlier this month — but not until 2019 after a study is completed, and only if the Federal Highway Administration says it's OK.
The multibillion-dollar plan for transportation projects also requires the Oregon Department of Transportation to report by February — six months away — how much it will cost to widen I-205 between Stafford Road and the George Abernethy Bridge and to reinforce the bridge against severe earthquakes.
But unlike two other major highway projects proposed in the region, the transportation plan provides no specific funding for that work. Some money for I-205 was included in an initial version that proposed $8.2 billion in spending over 10 years, but it was dropped in the final proposal.
"There is something in this package for everyone," said Clackamas County Commissioner Paul Savas, who is on the regional Joint Advisory Committee on Transportation for Metro, "but there is also something in this package for everyone to dislike."
Toll plan in 2018
The legislation directs the Oregon Transportation Commission, ODOT's policy-making board, to submit a tolling proposal to the Federal Highway Administration by the end of 2018.
I-5 and I-205 would be affected from their junction in Tualatin north to the Columbia River in Washington. That's about 20 miles of I-5 and 25 miles of I-205.
If the federal agency says yes, the state commission must inform lawmakers and implement the proposal. No public vote is required.
ODOT's Portland regional office will set up a committee with local officials and others to advise the agency about what is described as "value pricing." Possibilities include tolls during hours of peak traffic congestion, or an express toll lane alongside regular traffic lanes — similar to what is in operation on I-405 in Seattle's eastern suburbs.
California also has some toll roads.
"What they entail is charging a price for the use of a transportation facility that varies based on the time of day or the level of congestion on the facility," said Travis Brouwer, ODOT's assistant director for public affairs. "We need to develop some form of variable-rate pricing of roads that would help address some of our congestion concerns."
Oregon law dating back more than two decades already allows for tolls. The state commission worked on detailed policies between 2009 and 2012.
"I remember how much time we spent on tolling a few years ago and how complex it is," said state commission member Dave Lohman of Ashland. "I am nervous about delivering in that (18-month) timeframe."
The proposed Columbia River Crossing between Portland and Vancouver envisioned tolls, but Oregon dropped work on the bridge project after the Washington Legislature failed to approve it in 2013.
The final decision lies with the Federal Highway Administration because tolls generally are barred from existing interstate highways. (Some of them already were toll roads, particularly on the East Coast and in the Midwest, before the interstate system was established in the mid-1950s.)
The agency can grant exceptions to the no-toll rule if highways cannot be maintained or improved without tolls. Exceptions also are allowed for conversions to high-occupancy traffic lanes.
Savas said that from Clackamas County's perspective, the process needs to be accelerated.
"We cannot be in limbo for another year and a half about whether tolling is going to work or not," he said.
Although their word is only advisory, Clackamas County commissioners expressed mixed feelings last Tuesday on the possibility of tolls. Commissioner Ken Humberston said tolling is a last resort — and so are the expansions proposed for I-205.
"The reality is that ... you are not going to expand your way by freeway out of this traffic (congestion) as long as the area is growing," he said. "That's been tried in every other metropolitan area in this country, and it does not work. If you build more freeways, there will be more cars. In the final analysis, it is going to take alternative forms of transportation to reduce congestion."
Board Chairman Jim Bernard expressed strong disappointment at the omission of I-205 funding. Several Clackamas County lawmakers actually voted against the transportation package because it omits funding for I-205 work, while others opposed the idea of tolls. But their votes were essentially protests; HB 2017 passed the House 39-20, and it cleared the Senate 22-7.
ODOT's Brouwer said there are other considerations for tolls, such as billing, collecting and customer service, which ODOT is likely to contract out.
"It may not pencil out in certain areas. There are a lot of components that go into whether something is viable," said Tammy Baney of Bend, the state transportation commission chairwoman and a Deschutes County commissioner. "But I think we are at a crossroads in Oregon. We need to look at all options to make sure we are exhausting those and taking into consideration all factors."