When the Oregon Legislature passed HB2017 last year, the transportation package did not include any construction funding for Interstate 205 to resolve the 5.8-mile-long bottleneck. The transportation package did however include a mandate to initiate tolling of Interstate 5 and I-205. Now, as the discussion of tolling continues, the concerns of interstate traffic diverting onto local roads is heating up.
If I-5 and I-205 are tolled, how many motorists will use local roads to avoid paying tolls? Diversion is not a new phenomenon; as a result of growing congestion it is already occurring in the Portland-metro region.
Bottlenecks cause more congestion on major highways, which lead to accidents and in some cases fatalities. When there is a major backup on a highway, there are smart-phone applications that provide motorists shortcuts to avoid the traffic ahead, which leads to diversion on local roads. Traffic accidents happen for many reasons, and safety is a real concern for us all. Hence traffic congestion increases the risk of accidents, but also leads to traffic diversion onto local roads, putting our local communities at risk.
Local neighborhoods and homeowners are experiencing more traffic on their local streets, which increases the risk of being struck by a motorist who may be taking a shortcut through a neighborhood. Whether in a car, on a bicycle or as a pedestrian, diversion is a real threat to our communities.
Out-of-town travelers who are passing through our area should stay on the highways. It is only logical that eliminating bottlenecks and improving traffic flow will reduce accidents, tailpipe emissions and diversion.
Tolling scenarios that are under consideration include optional tolled express lanes versus the more aggressive concept of tolling all lanes. Arguments for and against these approaches will be the subject of discussion for months to come, however the likelihood of diversion will increase as a result of tolling, which is a factor we must carefully consider. Just as important is the risk of not addressing congestion.
Local roads come in all sizes. Portland for example has a significant grid structure of block after block of streets, whereas Clackamas and Washington counties have significantly less. In both Clackamas and Washington counties there are far fewer alternatives to driving a car, far fewer transit lines and a lack of connectivity that those in Portland may not realize. It is unfair to areas of the region that have poor access to bus transit when those involved in Portland and Metro governmental organizations beat the drum of "not building any additional road capacity." In downtown Portland there are four northbound lanes on Grand Avenue and four southbound lanes on Martin Luther King Boulevard with block after block of two or three-lane streets going both east and west, north and south. All this is to say that the needs in the urban core of Portland are different than most other parts of the metro region.
As our region has grown — and especially as the economy has heated up — we have outgrown our transportation system. We must acknowledge where our transportation system is undersized and invest in solutions that keep highway traffic on the highways. Areas like Clackamas County with poor access to bus service cannot rely on our inadequate transit, bike lanes and sidewalks to commute to and from work. As required by law our region's transportation plans include bike and pedestrian projects that could improve access to transit, but most of the regional transportation dollars are spent in the Portland-metro hub. We need honest conversations and balanced approaches to keep our communities safe and our economy moving.
When it comes to people commuting by car, transit, bike or walking on their own street, all lives matter. Safety is a responsibility of local governments that operate our transportation systems and should be openly discussed as one of the failures of under-investing in safe streets, roads and highways.
There are some elected officials who are advocating that all roads and streets be tolled. This would put residents and commuters in Clackamas and Washington counties at a serious and unfair disadvantage. Due to the complexity and impacts to our citizens, I have encouraged local officials to support efforts to expand the study period and allow the public more time to consider the impacts. Your input is vital, and the legislature needs to allow us ample time to study the impacts and give the public a fair opportunity to review the proposals.
You can send your comments — and find out more about the tolling project and upcoming public meetings — at the Oregon Department of Transportation's webpage.
Paul Savas is a Clackamas County commissioner who is running for re-election this year.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.