State road tolls may be inevitable
The prospect of tolls on some Portland-area freeways is proving to be an unpopular idea, transportation officials were told last
week, but they may be an inevitable piece of regional efforts to relieve traffic congestion.
Although the 2017 Legislature directed the Oregon Department of Transportation to apply for the necessary federal approvals for tolling by the end of 2018, attendees at a regional transportation conference were told public acceptance cannot be imposed from the top.
"Local elected officials have to decide it's time to try to get this in place," said Metro's Andy Shaw. "But I think it's a mistake to focus on raising money from tolls. The point should be to better manage the system we have, to put a price on it so we understand where the capacity is."
State legislation (House Bill 2017) envisions tolls on a 20-mile stretch of I-5 between the Columbia River and its junction with I-205 near Tualatin, and about 25 miles of I-205 north through Clackamas County to the Columbia and then on to Vancouver, Wash. Oregon has no such tolls now.
Federal approval is required for tolls on interstate highways, however, and U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, a Republican who represents the Washington district north of the Columbia, has attached a tolling ban to legislation that has passed the U.S. House.
John Horvick, vice president and political director for DHM Research in Portland, did not single out that bill. But he said there is a popular belief that "congestion pricing" will not work amid a persistent image of motorists having to dig for coins to pay tolls.
"You are changing the status quo," Horvick said. "You are changing it from something people deduce is free to something they are going to have to pay for."
Washington state has two toll roads, notably express lanes on I-405 on Seattle's east side (between Lynnwood and Bellevue) that have been operating for two years. The other is on a state highway, also in the Seattle area.
Washington Transportation Secretary Roger Millar said the I-405 lanes are achieving a goal of a 45-mph speed for 90 percent of the time (the actual figure is 86 percent). Because they have reduced congestion, it has resulted in greater ridership and shorter travel times for public transit in that area.
Oregon's 2017 legislation does call for what is known as an "intelligent transportation system," with on-ramp meters, variable speed limits hinging on traffic flow, and electronic message boards advising motorists of road conditions ahead. Some of those features are already on I-5 and I-205.
But John Tapogna, president of the Portland firm ECONorthwest, said that if current projections of population growth are correct, tolling is an inevitable alternative to new highways and expanded public transit.
"We can get started down this path of figuring out how to put prices on our network today — or we can do it five or 10 years from now," he said. "But I can tell you it will be there at some point."