Clackamas County commissioners are asking Oregon legislators and Gov. Kate Brown to find funding sources other than tolling to complete the proposed widening of Interstate 205 between Lake Oswego's Stafford Road and Highway 213 in Oregon City.
County Chair Jim Bernard said he had a conversation with Oregon Department of Transportation Director Kris Strickler this week in which Bernard suggested the I-205 project could use some of the funds that are currently held up, as major decisions over the Rose Quarter I-5 widening project remain up in the air.
"We'd be happy to take those dollars and have our project done," Bernard told his fellow commissioners on Tuesday, Aug. 4.
But according to Bernard, Strickler said that the Oregon Legislature's 2017 directive requires ODOT to look at funding I-205's estimated $450 million project cost only through tolling. The legislation increased Oregon's gas tax by 2 cents biennially beginning in 2018 to pay for several transportation projects, with an expected investment of $3.8 billion.
Bernard suggested that the board begin the process of lobbying legislative leaders within Clackamas County to work with the governor to set up a new committee to look at alternate funding methods. The problem, Bernard said, is that gas tax revenues are currently down 40%, or approximately $2 billion, as many Oregonians are driving less during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bernard told Strickler that County Commissioner Paul Savas will be the county's elected point person on all things transportation and should be looped into these discussions, as Bernard will be exiting the commission after the conclusion of this year.
The move by the county to ask the state to reconsider alternatives to tolling comes as ODOT this week opened its comment period for feedback on five proposed options for the project.
So far, the idea of tolling has received a chilly reception from most local elected officials in stakeholder communities such as Oregon City, Gladstone, Canby, West Linn and Lake Oswego.
Back in May, Lake Oswego City Councilors Daniel Nguyen and Jackie Manz said they're worried that tolls might inequitably burden lower-income individuals who have fewer options to work from home. Councilor John Wendland questioned whether or not the implementation of tolling is even feasible on a stretch of road where local drivers have never had to deal with paying a toll, and whether some might accidentally rack up massive fines.
ODOT says most tolls would be paid when small stickers placed on the inside of windshields are read and connected to prepaid accounts. If a vehicle doesn't have a transponder, a camera would capture the car's license plate, and the registered owner would be billed.
Both elected officials and residents of West Linn have voiced concern that tolls could divert drivers off the freeway and further clog neighborhood streets — a problem the city already sees in its historic Willamette neighborhood.
Earlier this year, state Rep. Rachel Prusak (D-West Linn) testified in front of her statehouse colleagues to the need for not only a third lane on I-205, but also seismic improvements to the Abernethy Bridge. Prusak also pushed for an amendment to an already existing transportation bill that would have diverted funds from the I-5 Rose Quarter project to I-205.
According to Prusak's testimony, increased traffic congestion on I-205 has already caused more drivers to seek alternate routes on city streets. ODOT's interchange traffic volume report shows there's been a 260% increase in traffic reentering I-205 at the Stafford exit.
"This increase represents more than 4,100 vehicles diverting through the local community roads every day," Prusak said. "Not only placing a burden on roads not constructed for this type of heavy traffic, but creating a safety risk for the families who live there."
Officials in Oregon City and Gladstone will hear presentations on the project Wednesday, Aug. 5, and Tuesday, Aug. 11, respectively.
Gladstone City Councilor Randy Ripley and City Administrator Jacque Betz participated in a Zoom policy meeting last month to review the five options and understand the effects of tolls to local streets. They hope early data-sharing will help them evaluate the potential effects of each alternative, but many are hoping that a "no toll, no build" option be put on the list of project feedback recommendations which will be considered by the Oregon Transportation Commission (OTC).
"It is imperative that Gladstone residents participate in the public outreach process for the next year as there will be severe traffic impacts to our residential streets and highway. ODOT consultants are reviewing five alternatives that they need to narrow down," Betz said. "Public Works Director Jim Whynot and I are on the technical advisory committee and do not like any of the alternatives. As a reminder, the legislature directed the ODOT consultants to explore tolling on the Abernethy Bridge. A recommendation to the OTC will be in August, so it is critical for Gladstone residents to be engaged."
Through Sept. 16, ODOT will host a website at oregonevents.org/openhouse/i205toll for the public to ask questions, offer feedback and learn about the project.
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