Oregon, Washington look to maintain existing resources; the topic of tolling on Oregon highways is discussed.

FILE PHOTO - Among the options discussed at a two-state transportation meeting in Beaverton is the potential of tolling on Oregon highways. The leaders of Oregon and Washington state transportation agencies say their focus is shifting from developing and building projects to maintaining and improving networks.

They spoke Wednesday at a transportation conference sponsored by the Westside Economic Alliance in the Beaverton Building.Matt Garrett

Legislatures in both states have approved big spending on transportation in recent years — $16 billion in Washington in 2015, $5.3 billion in Oregon this year.

But even though much of that money is for new construction to add capacity, increasing shares are going toward preservation of and greater efficiencies in aging highways, bridges and other infrastructure.

Directors of the state transportation agencies say that spending is necessary, but not always popular.

"From a political standpoint, everybody wants to cut a ribbon for a new bridge," said Matt Garrett, who has been director of the Oregon Department of Transportation for 12 years. "Not too many people want to cut a ribbon for a culvert."

Washington State Transportation Secretary Roger Millar said neglecting repairs can negate the effects of new construction.

"We talk about the cost of congestion," Millar said. "Let's talk about the cost of not having good repairs."

Conference attendees were scheduled to hear from panels about building and funding future transportation, and from John Porcari, a former U.S. deputy transportation secretary and Maryland transportation secretary.

Results of later events were not available at press time.

Asked about the prospects of imposing tolls on Interstates 5 and 205 in the Portland area — the Legislature has directed ODOT to prepare plans for federal approval by the end of 2018 — Garrett said, "We have a great laboratory in Highway 217."

Highway 217, which runs between Beaverton and Tigard, is not on the tolling list.

But the Legislature did set aside just under $100 million in the latest transportation funding package for improvements on Highway 217. The highway has Oregon's first on-ramp meters — which are now installed on other metro-area highways — variable speed limits depending on traffic flow, and electronic message boards advising motorists of conditions ahead.

"When 217 was designed, people were very generous with on- and off-ramps," Garrett said. "It's used as a local road, though it's not what it's supposed to be."

But the package of measures known as traffic systems management has made Highway 217 safer and improved the flow of traffic in an increasingly congested corridor, he said.

"We squeeze out a little more operational efficiency," he said.

Oregon's 2017 legislation also directs ODOT to proceed with similar measures on Interstate 205 through Multnomah and Clackamas counties, regardless of whether tolls are imposed.

Tolling plans for I-5 and I-205 hinge on federal approval. A bill that has passed the House and is pending in the Senate contains an amendment by U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, who represents the Washington district north of Portland, to block tolls.

Washington state has toll roads, notably an express lane on I-405 on Seattle's eastside suburbs that has been operating for two years. Millar said the lane is achieving its goal of a 45 mph speed for 90 percent of the time (the actual figure is 86 percent). Because it has reduced congestion, it has resulted in greater ridership and shorter travel times for public transit in that area.

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