How many of us have sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic on I-5 trying to get across the Interstate Bridge? Or any other metro-area highway during rush hour, trying to get somewhere important and wondering, "Why doesn't someone do something about all this traffic?"
Well, someone did. The 2017 Oregon Legislature passed an impressive transportation funding package with special attention paid to congestion in and around the Portland area. The package included gas tax and vehicle fee increases, a fee on vehicle purchases and the potential implementation of tolls on freeways in the Portland area.
Now, as the package is being implemented, there has been a focus on the tolling portion of the plan. The Legislature created a process for tolls to be considered, so it is appropriate for the public to weigh in on the topic.
Every place where variable tolls have been implemented systemwide, congestion is reduced. Highway pricing works every time. This isn't new technology; Oregon isn't breaking new ground here. There are multiple studies and on-the-ground examples that demonstrate the success of systemwide pricing of roads and bridges.
Those studies and real-world examples demonstrate that it takes only a small fraction of drivers to alter their driving plans to create a much more efficient use of existing highways or bridges. Those drivers who alter their plans decide, based on the "price," to drive at a later or earlier time, when it's cheaper.
Drivers who have to be at work at 8 a.m. receive the benefit of a more-efficient highway and more certainty related to expected commuting time.
Pricing highways also provides highway planners and policymakers signals about where additional capacity is needed, and provides a funding mechanism to pay for it.
Traditional gas taxes and vehicle fees offer no such market signals. They continue to be useful tools to raise the dollars necessary to fund maintenance and preservation of our transportation infrastructure, but will have virtually no impact on addressing the Portland metro region's congestion challenges.
It is only through the implementation of systemwide tolling will our region's drivers get the most effective use of our existing infrastructure and the dollars needed to address critical bottlenecks.
Make no mistake: Oregon drivers will pay one way or the other. We will pay for Oregon roads and bridges through a gas tax and fees and tolls — or we will pay a congestion "tax," a tax on our time wasted sitting in traffic every day.
The congestion "tax" does not discriminate based on socio-economic status. Rich and poor alike pay it; businesses moving freight pay it; moms and dads wanting to spend quality time with family pay it; the single parent trying to get to daycare pays it; regular commuters and tourists alike pay it. That kind of congestion "tax," unlike tolls, hits everyone. No one gets preferential treatment.
I applaud the Oregon Legislature for being willing to take the political risk and put on the table a real solution for metropolitan Portland's congestion problem. Pricing the highway system with tolls is a solution worth pursuing.
Bruce Starr served in the Oregon Legislature from 1999 to 2015, representing Hillsboro, Cornelius and Forest Grove. A Republican, he co-authored several of the Legislature's transportation bills between 2001 to 2014.
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