After homelessness and the lack of affordable housing, Portland-area residents routinely rank traffic congestion as one of the biggest problems in the region.
The most recent poll to show dissatisfaction with congestion was the 2019 Portland Insights Survey, which was released by the City Budget Office in August. Two-thirds of respondents thought traffic or crowding is worse than last year, with approximately 40% saying their commutes are getting less reliable or safe.
That is consistent with other surveys released in recent years that show congestion is widely viewed as a serious regional problem. But it remains to be seen how the public will react to one of the solutions being considered by state regional and local governments — congestion pricing, or having to pay to drive on area freeways, streets, roads and bridges. Some of the same surveys show significant public opposition to the concept.
The Portland Business Alliance will sponsor a timely panel discussion on congestion pricing on Wednesday, Sept. 18. Many residents already know the federal government has authorized the Oregon Department of Transportation to impose congestion pricing on parts of I-5 and I-205 in the Portland area if certain conditions are met.
But the City Council also directed the Portland Bureau of Transportation in July to appoint a task force to help study congestion pricing on city streets and county bridges. And Metro, the elected regional government, recently released a request for proposal for a consultant to assist with a similar study in the tricounty area.
The PBA discussion will feature an introduction to congestion pricing by John Tapogna, president of the Portland-based ECONorthwest consulting firm, which recently completed a study on potential congestion pricing in downtown Seattle for the Uber ride-share company.
The panelists will include: Metro Council President Lynn Peterson; Marshall Runkel, chief of staff to Commissioner Chloe Eudaly; and Daniel Malarkey, senior fellow at the Sightline Institute, a Seattle-based sustainability think tank. It will be moderated by Dana Haynes, managing editor of the Portland Tribune.
Runkel is filling in for Eudaly, who is in charge of PBOT. She will be in Europe studying congestion pricing system in several cities on a tour financed by the Bloomberg Foundation, not Portland taxpayers.
"It's imperative that we figure out new ways to use the limited amount of space we have for transportation, because I don't think anybody is up for demolishing buildings to make more room for cars," Runkel said before the discussion. "There is a consensus among economists that pricing is the way to solve congestion."
The PBA has yet not taken a position on any congestion pricing proposal, but wants to encourage a larger discussion.
"Congestion is real and affects all of us — from parents getting their kids to school, to cyclists and transit users getting to work, to the many businesses that must move goods across the region," said Amy Lewin, the PBA's vice president for strategic communications.
Under the concepts being studied, the fees would go up when traffic increases to discourage driving and encourage alternative forms of transportation. Fees could also be charged to enter congested areas, like downtown Portland.
In a February letter sent to the Oregon Transportation Commission, Peterson said Metro's study could include so-called cordon-pricing, which includes charging to enter areas within a region.
"That study won't be limited to congestion-pricing, historically known as freeway tolls, and it could mean taking a long look at the pros and cons of cordon-pricing, most famously deployed in London, where drivers are charged whenever they enter a certain part of a city," the letter said.
As ECONorthwest learned in its Seattle study, congestion pricing is a complicated topic, in large part because it involves many issues. They include the need to reduce congestion without preventing necessary travel, and the impact on lower-income households who can least afford to pay the charges.
"In addition to being pushed to the edges of the city by gentrification and displacement, it is important to note that low- and moderate-income people are also now paying more for transportation as a result of being priced out of inner city neighborhoods. It's a toxic situation," Runkel said.
The Seattle study suggests all of these issues can be addressed by setting the fees at the right levels at the right times, and by using some of the revenues they generate to reduce those paid by lower-income households. Among other things, the study found upper-income households pay the highest fees, which would generate more than enough money for rebates to lower-income households.
"There is enough money there to justify the conversation," Tapogna said before the discussion, where more details from the study will be presented.
The PBA is a membership organization representing businesses in the Portland area. It has sponsored a series of studies documenting the costs of increasing congestion in the region with other business-oriented organizations. The PBA's breakfast forums are co-sponsored by the Portland Tribune and Community Newspapers.
If you go
Forum: What's next for congestion pricing?
When: 7:30-9:45 a.m. Wednesday. Sept. 18; doors open at 7 a.m.
Where: Atrium Ballroom, Hilton Hotel, 921 S.W. Sixth Ave., Portland
You can find more information at www.portlandalliance.com.
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