Citizens circulating petitions to force votes on proposed freeway tolls in Oregon have found a state legislator's sympathetic ear.
Sen. Bill Kennemer announced Jan. 7 one of his two priority bills for this February's short legislative session is a measure, which, if passed, would create an amendment to the Oregon Constitution to allow residents living within 15 miles of a proposed tollway to vote on whether to approve or reject the proposal. The measure is a direct response to increasing voter frustration with plans to toll sections of Interstates 5 and 205, as well as the potential for tolling the entire freeway system in the tri-county Metro region.
"No matter where I go in the community, one of the most persistent concerns outside of the COVID-19 pandemic that voters relay to me is their opposition to freeway tolls," Kennemer said. "Clackamas County has always been treated as the step-child of the Metro area, and this is another instance of this, since we're going to be tolled first and we have the worst infrastructure."
Kennemer's district is entirely within Clackamas County and abuts Interstate 205. He represents Senate District 20, which currently includes the cities of Oregon City, Oak Grove, Canby, Boring and Estacada. The district will consist of parts of Happy Valley and Milwaukie after 2022 — both of which will also be directly impacted by freeway tolls.
"As the cost of living, including commuting, continues to rise, freeway tolls on our already-paid-for interstates will drive up the cost to go to work, take your child to school or run daily household errands," Kennemer said. "We certainly need to increase our infrastructure, but as planned, the current tolling scheme doesn't address congestion, and will make traffic on local roads worse."
Kennemer said toll diversion on area arterial roads like Highways 43 and 99, as well as the Oregon City Bridge, could make local traffic a nightmare.
"It's going to have a big impact on our business community, since if we're congested on our diversion roads like Highway 43 and Highway 99E, people are going to go someplace else," he said.
As a state representative in 2017, Kennemer voted against House Bill 2017, which created permission for ODOT to begin implementing a tolling plan. He believed the freeway tolling measures, as well as an escalating gas tax and a sales tax on bikes, would price families and seniors on a budget out of having fair access to transportation.
"In just this past year, we've seen gas prices skyrocket to nearly $4 a gallon, with a new gas tax increase just this week," Kennemer said. "It's too much for lower-income and working Oregonians to pay. Tolling would be a huge family budget buster, and voters should have a direct say on the transportation package, which opened the door to tolling schemes."
If passed, Kennemer's legislative concept would go directly to voters in the upcoming November 2022 General Election for a statewide vote. If voters approve of the measure, then any plan to toll freeways where a toll was not already in existence before January 2018, would be required to go on a ballot to the voters who live in counties within a 15-mile radius of the proposed tolling corridor. In the case of freeway tolls on Interstate 205, that would include voters in Clackamas, parts of Multnomah County, and Washington County who would have a say on whether ODOT could enact new tolls.
Kennemer said freeway tolls would particularly burden drivers in Clackamas County where as many as 7 in 10 residents commute outside of the county for work. Additionally, thousands of students commute from around the region to attend Clackamas Community College.
"The daily cost burden for using a freeway that benefits all Oregonians and people from out of state, shouldn't fall to the residents who live closest to the freeway system," he said. "If we need to address infrastructure, then it should be a statewide discussion, not just a burden shouldered by a few for a road used by so many."
Kennemer said ODOT would be the beneficiary of over a billion dollars from the most recent federal infrastructure package. He believes those funds and other sources of revenue could be bonded against, negating the need to toll to modify the Abernethy Bridge and widen Interstate 205 from the Stafford Road exit to the bridge.
"Giving voters the power to halt these tolls isn't going back to the drawing board for infrastructure plans," he said. "While I'm committed to working on other funding sources for infrastructure that don't add costs for drivers, I'm more interested in giving voters the right to weigh in on key decisions like enacting freeway tolls which directly impact their checkbooks."
Absent new legislation to protect drivers, Kennemer says ODOT has plans to enact tolls as early as the end of 2023.
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.