Two Portland-area county commissioners addressing plans by the Oregon Department of Transportation to set up electronic road tolling along portions of Interstate 205 painted a bleak picture of the proposal.
At a forum in Tualatin on Thursday morning, Sept. 8, Washington County Commissioner Roy Rogers and Clackamas County Commissioner Paul Savas weighed in on ODOT's proposal to toll the interstate.
The two commissioners were featured speakers at the Tualatin Chamber of Commerce's Key Leaders Series, held at Tualatin Country Club, on Thursday.
Rogers, who represents Tigard, Tualatin, King City and Sherwood on the Washington County commission, said the topic of tolling should be of interest to everyone — unless they make or manufacture everything they use or consume. Freight costs from tolling will be passed down to consumers, he warned.
"So you need to be aware, you are not without impact," Rogers said.
Rogers, the longest-serving county commissioner in Oregon, noted that not only is a toll planned but "congestion pricing" as well. That pricing, essentially higher rates set during peak travel hours, is designed to change driver behavior.
"What is the bottom line on congestion pricing? What does that mean to all of you?" Rogers asked. "It's all lanes, all hours, all days."
ODOT plans to use variable-rate tolls on Abernethy Bridge on I-205, which spans the Willamette River in Oregon City, as well as the Tualatin Bridge, a short highway bridge that spans the Tualatin River on I-205 near Stafford Road, in an effort to manage congestion along the roadway.
ODOT has said it will set the toll "based on public input, cost of living, congestion relief goals and revenue needs," with tentative plans to implement it in 2024.
Savas, who owned a small Clackamas County business for 26 years, said when it came to funding major transportation projects in 2017, the Oregon Legislature agreed to pay for expansions of the Interstate 5 through the Rose Quarter and Highway 217 in Beaverton and Tigard to relieve congestion, but lawmakers couldn't agree on a plan to pay for improvements on I-205. Instead, they suggested looking at tolling.
Rogers, who served as Tualatin's mayor in the 1970s and '80s, said many residents will avoid tolls by taking alternative routes. While there is a plan to use a portion of the tolls to fix roads that will be impacted by those routes — so-called diversion money — it won't go to all the cities that could be impacted by a toll. Neither Sherwood nor King City will receive any of those funds, Rogers said. In addition, most of both Tigard and Tualatin will see no money as well, he said.
Savas is concerned as well, pointing to existing traffic on Clackamas County roadways.
Willamette Falls Drive in West Linn is a complete line of cars starting at about 4 p.m., Savas said, adding that for two to three hours each weekday, constant freeway traffic pours through that neighborhood.
"It's the third lane, essentially, of I-205," Savas said. "It's dangerous."
So too is Stafford Road, a roadway that has deep culverts.
"If cars swerve or brake suddenly, they slide. They usually roll (over)," Savas said.
Likewise, Highway 43, which travels through both West Linn and Lake Oswego, faces similar challenges, Savas said, noting that a future trip along that roadway is expected to increase by 13 minutes once tolling begins.
In addition, he said he doesn't expect traffic along Tualatin-Sherwood Road to subside once tolling begins as well.
Savas said around-the-clock tolling will create an incentive for people to divert off the highway not just during rush hour but 24 hours a day.
"It's going to be worst because people will be cutting through our neighborhoods all the time to avoid tolls. Financially, people are going to make those changes," he said.
However, there is no solution to prevent diversion into cars traveling through neighborhoods, Savas said.
Rogers said representation from the business community is lacking on ODOT's tolling committee. He said Tualatin Mayor Frank Bubenik is one of the few representatives on the committee who works in the private industry sector.
Rogers is also worried about the effect tolling could have on small businesses.
"There's no way that you as businesspeople are going to take a fee and not pass it on," he said, added that that could happen through distributors, manufacturers and retailers. "This could be passed on five times easily if not more."
Savas suggested the possibility of using only one lane as an express lane along I-205 where motorists would pay a toll, leaving the other lanes as they are.
"I think people are willing to pay to get something," Savas said, but they want something of value that's not present in the current tolling proposal.
"I'm not against tolling for facilities," said Rogers. "I think that's a way to pay for them, but when you pay for things that you're not going to get, then where is that revenue going to go?"
He then added, tongue-in-cheek, that he would "love for Tualatin, Wilsonville (and) Tigard to put a chain across I-5" as a way to collect tolls for those passing through, with all the revenue collected benefiting those cities.
Meanwhile, the group Vote Before Tolls is planning to put a proposed constitutional amendment before voters, currently referred to as Initiative Petition 4, in 2024. The measure would require that a regional vote be taken before new tolls are enacted anywhere in the state.
Plans call for a third lane on I-205 to be added between Stafford Road and Highway 213, a 5-mile stretch of highway that doesn't have three lanes in each direction, causing bottlenecks, according to highway officials.
On Friday, Sept. 9, Mandy Putney, ODOT's urban mobility office strategic initiatives director, said the agency is looking into concerns about increased diversion traffic through neighborhoods, guided by the National Environmental Policy Act, which looks at environmental and community benefits and impacts associated with the project.
"We know that there's a tremendous amount of diversion right now on local neighborhood streets and that if we don't do anything, we will have gridlock not just on the interstate, but also the local system will be extremely congested given the population growth that's anticipated for the region," she said.
Putney said adding the third lane, doing variable-rate tolling and making interchange improvements will provide a solution to congestion and raise revenue for future improvements through tolling.
Those improvements are expected to reduce congestion along I-205 from 14 hours per day to two or less, she noted.
Regarding specifics on tolling, plans are to install overhead gantries over both the Tualatin River Bridge as well as the Abernethy Bridge, recording when a vehicle passes through.
While no toll rate has been set yet, ODOT has modeling assumptions placing a higher fee during peak times of the day and lower rates during non-peak times. That cost could run from a peak of $2.20 for a trip with a tiered, stair-step of possible lower rate options depending on the time of day a motorist is traveling.
"Both bridges at the off-peak time, you could pay maybe $1.20 or something. If you were going at the afternoon p.m. peak, then your trip could be just over $4," said Putney, emphasizing those are assumptions and the Oregon Transportation Commission will make the final decision.
Motorists could pay through electronic payments with options to preload an amount on their account or they could be sent a bill. Plans call for tolling to begin in December 2024.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect comments from ODOT officials.
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