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In this month's Keep Oregon Moving column, Brendan Finn outlines plans for the future of transportation in the Portland metro area.

During the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic, portions of interstates 5 and 205 in the Portland region saw record low congestion levels.

This was no surprise as we stayed safe and stayed home, but as we adjust to a new normal, our transportation system is adjusting as well.

At ODOT's Urban Mobility Office, we continue to see lower volumes on city streets, but congestion is coming back to our interstates and is now over 90% of pre-pandemic levels. It is continuing to trend upward, impacting our everyday lives, air quality, and our response to climate change.

BRENDAN FINNWhat is driving this upsurge bringing congestion back? Increased delivery of goods? The new ability to work from remote locations? Pent up demand for travel? As we learn more about what is driving demand for increased travel, the Urban Mobility Office is working with regional and statewide stakeholders to develop a plan to improve urban mobility in these uncertain times and plan for the future.

While the times are uncertain, we do know that as the economy recovers, congestion will return. Time is money, and congestion is costly. It slows down the movement of goods and services and makes it hard for commuters and travelers to know how long it will take to get from point A to point B.

The Oregon Urban Mobility Plan, also known as the Comprehensive Congestion Management Plan, has the potential to end bottlenecks by making strategic modernization and safety improvements and programmatic improvements to maximize the efficiency of the regional system.

Here's the deal

This all came about under the Oregon Transportation Commission's direction and leadership, using tools outlined in House Bill 2017 passed by the Oregon State Legislature. This legislation, along with other efforts — including the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program — provides strategic improvements and addresses the most significant and long-standing bottlenecks at I-5 Rose Quarter, the Interstate Bridge, and the southern portion of I-205. These are ranked the 19th, 34th, and 88th worst freight bottlenecks nationally.

While the bottleneck projects are critical fixes to the system, to manage congestion, they will need to be coupled with our Toll Program, which was also authorized in HB 2017 and is key to a system-wide approach. The Toll Program and the implementation of congestion pricing are currently envisioned to manage the system with variable pricing, which will improve mobility, travel times, and reliability by charging a higher price during peak traffic periods. This will have the added benefit of improving air quality and reducing greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change.

The higher fee encourages some drivers to consider other travel options, such as carpools or transit, or travel during less congested times. A small reduction in the number of vehicles can significantly improve travel flow.

Users of the system can be assured toll proceeds will result in improvements in the I-5 and I-205 corridors. This is mandated by the Oregon Constitution under Article IX, Section 3a, and directed by the Oregon Transportation Commission. The revenues collected from the Toll Program will be spent on roadway projects, which could include construction or reconstruction of travel lanes and bicycle and pedestrian facilities or transit improvements in or along the roadway.

The Toll Program team is also engaging stakeholders around the region to ensure equity is built into the program, recognizing that low-income and communities of color have been displaced to other parts of the region where transportation options are limited. This and other equity issues related to the Toll Program are being considered by the Equity and Mobility Advisory Committee as they advise on program proposals.

Much work is to be done to implement this comprehensive, system-wide solution to manage congestion and increase mobility in the Portland metro region. It will be done under the Oregon Transportation Commission's guidance, reflecting Oregon's history of thoughtful and forward-thinking transportation planning. Oregonians have long embraced innovations that reflect community values, and as the Comprehensive Congestion Management Plan moves forward, it will reflect the forward-thinking spirit of Oregonians.

Onward.


Brendan Finn is director of ODOT's Urban Mobility Office. Comments can be directed to 866-Ask-ODOT.


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