Opinion: I-205 tolling activism should have Strong Towns focus
I did not have a good first impression of I-205 tolling critics and their "No Toll Army." I don't like the idea of going to war over every political dispute. I don't like today's polarization and dogma with everything as us-vs-them and good-vs-evil dichotomies. That said, when I actually discussed the issues with the critics, they seemed surprisingly nuanced and nonpartisan.
We all agree that a congested interstate is in every way worse than a free-flowing one. Congestion increases pollution and is entirely wasteful. The one potentially positive side-effect of congestion is that it discourages extra driving. In that sense, tolls seem to make sense. They internalize more of the costs of car traffic and discourage excessive driving.
With their "no toll" and "tax" focus, I imagined the No Toll Army to be little more than generic knee-jerk sentiment driven by complainers who don't want anything to change and don't want to pay for anything. Their call for a public vote on tolls seemed to me like asking shoppers whether the price of bread at the store should go up. Of course, voters will say "no," but they don't directly have to deal with the actual challenges of running a sustainable business or actually solving congestion. I'm all for democracy, but if we want citizen control of budget issues, we need Participatory Budgeting where citizens have to actually engage with all the tradeoffs rather than just say yes or no to specific items out of context.
In my actual discussion with a No Toll organizer, I was pleased and surprised that they brought up climate and environmental issues. They mentioned the problems with lack of good transit around the I-205 corridor. They supported moving toward electric vehicles. All this seems more thoughtful than just being anti-tax.
Now, I don't see switching to electric cars as a real path forward. The only way to actually reduce congestion is to get away from our car-dependent, daily-commute way of life. We need integrated communities where people can live near work, groceries, schools and recreation. Put simply, we need Strong Towns (as in the nonprofit movement at strongtowns.org). I wish we could reframe the whole conversation around that vision. Strong Towns is about local control, iterative development, conservative fiscal responsibility, human-scale and resilience.
The No Toll organizer I talked to also expressed criticisms of TriMet's MAX and proposed Southwest Corridor rail expansion. Now, I love trains and rail, but Strong Towns is actually quite critical of these big-government all-at-once top-down developments. The great trolley systems and neighborhoods of a century ago existed because of many smaller operations that were built out bit-by-bit. Even if we want light rail, we need to have the appropriate context around it for it to thrive.
If we simply expand the interstate with nothing else to discourage traffic, it will just become an even larger, still-congested situation. That has been the case for all highway expansions anywhere. As soon as more road is available, people will use it. With more highway, people will be willing to continue living far from work and building car-dependent developments until the congestion gets awful again. This is one of the points from the other activist movement at nomorefreewayspdx.com.
So, while the NoToll.Army website currently lacks nuance and has a NIMBY-style, knee-jerk anti-tax rhetoric, perhaps that's a symptom of the limited reactive fight-back approach we are left with when government only does mediocre listening-survey-style public engagement. I found the people behind the movement to be more thoughtful than one might assume at first. There's a lot of room to find agreement and common ground. We all care about our communities, safety, the environment and our ability to travel efficiently. Critics may be right about tolls leading to serious harm from diverting traffic into Oregon City and West Linn.
I think that a Strong Towns approach to public engagement would not have brought us to this point. If we had more truly meaningful, on-the-ground inclusive, participatory citizen involvement, we could have more win-win scenarios. We could have a whole different feeling about how we relate to our neighbors and our governments. We could be working together as a community instead of joining armies and picking sides.
Aaron Wolf is a resident of Oregon City.
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