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Panelists tell the Portland Business Alliance that charging people to drive is the only sure way to reduce congestion.

COURTESY PBA - Speaking about congestion pricing at the Portland Business Alliance forum were (from left) Senior Sightline Institute Fellow Malarkey, Commissioner Chloe Eudaly's chief of staff Marshall Runkel, and Metro President Lynn Peterson.City, regional and state officials have all but decided that charging people to drive is just about the only way to reduce congestion in the Portland area. They just don't know exactly how much to charge, how to collect it, or when to begin.

That was one takeaway from a panel discussion on congestion pricing hosted by the Portland Business Alliance on Wednesday, Sept. 18. The Oregon Legislature already has directed the Oregon Department of Transportation to study ways to charge people for driving on Portland area freeways, in order to reduce congestion. Now Portland and Metro, the elected regional government, are launching congestion pricing studies.

Marshall Runkel, chief of staff to Portland Transportation Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, explained the benefits of congestion pricing by saying, "Our road system will work a lot better, and we don't have to change our behavior that much to have a better system."

The only elected official on the dais, Metro President Lynn Peterson, told the business leaders, "We're at a time when congestion is so dire, and the costs are so dire, that we're willing to have this conversation. There are a lot of ideas on the table, but how do they all fit together?"

Runkel and Peterson were hesitant to speculate on how high the charges should be; exactly where they should apply; and how soon they could be imposed. The third panelist offered a possible explanation for their reluctance.

"The public hates it," said Daniel Malarkey, senior fellow at the Sightline Institute, a Seattle-based sustainability think tank. He cited a poll conducted by the Seattle Times newspaper that found 70% of that city's residents oppose congestion pricing, which is being considered by the City Council there to reduce congestion in the downtown core.PMG FILE PHOTO - The Portland Bureau of Transportation is studying convestion proicing on city streets.

Malarkey insisted that most people will change their minds when they see the benefits, however. He talked about what happened when congestion pricing was imposed in Stockholm, Sweden, where voters had a chance to continue or repeal it after a trial period. Before the charges were imposed, 70% of city residents opposed them; the same percent as in Seattle. But when the election was held, 70% voted to keep the charges because they reduced congestion by 20%.

"You have to give people the opportunity to experience it," Malarkey said about congestion pricing.

Runkel and Peterson agreed, without offering a schedule for such a local or regional pilot program.

The panel was moderated by Portland Tribune Managing Editor Dana Haynes. Pamplin Media Group, parent company of the Tribune, was a sponsor.

The Portland-based ECONorthwest consulting firm recently completed a study on potential congestion pricing in downtown Seattle for the Uber ride-share company. John Tapogna, the firm's president, began the discussion with an explanation of congestion pricing, which are charges to drive that vary depending on the level of congestion. They can be imposed in a variety of ways: From just on car pool lanes; to entire freeways; to designated areas like downtown; to virtually all roads in a region.

That is significantly different that tolls, Tapogna said, which are flat fees on specific roads and bridges that do not vary.

Tapogna insisted that expanding or building more roads will not significantly reduce congestion because, as you build them, they only fill up with more vehicles. He also presented some of the findings of a study his firm did on the Seattle proposal for Uber. According to the study, the council there could meaningfully reduce congestion and increase transit in the downtown core by charging drivers up to $3.80 to enter the downtown core during peak travel times. Such charges could raise up to $130 million per year, some of which could be returned to lower-income drivers to reduce or even eliminate their increased travel costs.

The study found the reduced congestion would save drivers up to $90 million per year in travel costs and lost productivity.

Economist Eric Fruits of the Cascade Policy Institute , a free-market think tank, pointed out that would still increase the cost of living by $40 million per year. Malarkey insisted that that could be reduced by wise investments of the rest of the revenue raised by the charges.

The Portland Business Alliance, which represents Portland area businesses, has not taken a position on any specific congestion pricing proposal. It supported the resolution approved by the Portland City Council to appoint the Equitable Mobility Task Force because it promised to involve stakeholders and community members. The task force is expected to begin meeting in October and make its recommendations to the council next year.

The PBA has co-sponsored a series of studies documenting the costs of increasing congestion in the region with other business-oriented organizations.

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