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New I-205 auxiliary lanes pave way for gas tax increase; congestion in I-5 corridor declines from an average of five hours a day to one hour a day.

COURTESY: ODOT - New lanes keep traffic moving.

Some good things have been happening on Portland-area highways recently, but you may not have noticed unless you knew what to look for.

I'm talking about the new auxiliary lanes on Interstate 205. An auxiliary lane connects an on-ramp to the next off-ramp, keeping a lot of traffic from merging into the freeway mainline and preventing many sideswipes and rear-end crashes. Auxiliary lanes are a well-established tool to improve safety and reduce congestion.

It makes sense that sometimes people don't pay much attention when things work the way they're supposed to, only when things go wrong. But these new auxiliary lanes are working the way they're supposed to and are helping keep sections of I-205 less congested than they used to be.

Last year we completed an auxiliary lane on southbound Interstate 5, from Oregon 99W to I-205, and we saw congestion in that corridor decline from an average of five hours a day to one hour a day.

Thanks to the Oregon Legislature and HB 2017, Keep Oregon Moving, these improvements will beget more improvements. That's because completion of these I-205 auxiliary lanes was needed to trigger a 2-cents per gallon bump in the state gas tax, starting Jan. 1, 2020, and that, in turn, will bring more transportation improvements across the state, small towns, and big cities.

The auxiliary lanes were not the only triggers necessary for the new gas tax to kick in. There was a whole series of projects we had to complete first, and I'm happy to say the Legislature in November agreed that we got everything done we said we'd get done to make the gas tax bump take place.

Additional increases of 2 cents a gallon will go into effect Jan. 1, 2022, and again on Jan. 1 2024, providing, once again, that ODOT meets specific targets. The bill marked the first time the Oregon Legislature has set conditions for the implementation of a gas tax increase.

The landmark bill touches most parts of Oregon's economy and transportation system by helping to maintain roads and bridges, improve public transportation, provide new safer bike and pedestrian opportunities, reduce congestion, upgrade rail and port systems and create incentives for zero-emission vehicles.

This first increase would raise the Oregon gas tax from 34 to 36 cents a gallon. The federal tax is 18.4 cents a gallon. Oregon's counties and cities are allowed to add their local gas tax as well. At full implementation in 2024, Oregon's gas tax will be 40 cents a gallon, still less than the gas tax in either Washington or California.

The additional 2 cents will, like all gas tax revenues, go into the State Highway Fund. Under state law, 59% of the highway fund goes to the state and the rest to the cities and counties. The counties receive 25%, an allocation based on their number of registered vehicles, and 16% goes to the cities based on population.

Yes, we will be paying a little more for gas, but we'll be getting more as well. Cities and counties will make their own decisions on how to spend the additional revenue and will choose what projects are best for their communities.

Look at the numbers to better understand the congestion problem. Our most recent Traffic Performance Report showed a 20.1% increase in the hours of delay on the region's freeways from 2015 to 2017.

These problems aren't a mystery to the public. Morning and afternoon commute times creep toward midday, freight companies dispatch their trucks in the middle of the night to avoid congestion, and everyone is spending more time in traffic and less with friends and family.

These auxiliary lanes help. When freeway traffic is smoother, maybe you think you were lucky and caught traffic on a good day. But this is by design. Nobody will be cruising down the road at the speed limit in the middle of rush hour. If you think about it, maybe you've been seeing fewer stop-and-go days and more days running smooth.

Kris Strickler is the director of the Oregon Department of Transportation. Comments can be directed to 866-AskODOT.

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