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ODOT to proceed with federally required research, outreach on tolling impacts

COURTESY PHOTO: ODOT - Oregon Department of Transportation is proceeding with the federal environmental evaluation phase of its Interstate 205 Toll project. Metro Council's elected officials on Tuesday, April 26, approved changes to a transportation investment plan that includes tolling of Interstate 205.

Metro's approval will allow the Oregon Department of Transportation to conduct federally required environmental research, design work and further community outreach related to tolling.

With the approval, approximately $28 million has been programmed into the project to fund ODOT's completion of a project assessment required under the National Environmental Policy Act before any further steps toward tolling implementation can continue.

Metro Council President Lynn Peterson was not immediately available for comment on Tuesday regarding the approval.

"These amendments allow us to access funding that was authorized and allocated by the Transportation Commission in 2021," said Mandy Putney, director of strategic initiatives for ODOT's Urban Mobility Office. "And also to answer all the questions that are on the table in terms of 'What would tolling be like and feel like for drivers?' How would it be experienced? And what would be the benefits and the impacts associated? And if there are negative impacts, then how do we address them and solve them?"

The amendments were approved on March 17 by the Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation, before moving on to the Metro Policy Advisory Committee for approval on March 30. Metro councilors voted through the amendments in spite of broad opposition from Clackamas County's cities, along with four of 16 members of the regional advisory committee voting against: Clackamas County Commissioner Paul Savas, Portland Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, Metro Councilor Juan Carlos González and Metro Councilor Christine Lewis.

Of the $28 million funding allocation, approximately $20 million will go directly toward completion of the project assessment, while the remaining funds totaling roughly $8 million will go toward preliminary design considerations regarding toll gantries and their location-based environmental impact, but will not include any construction or implementation of tolling infrastructure, ODOT officials say.

Putney said that Tuesday's approval additionally allows ODOT to move forward with commitments that have been discussed with regional transportation boards in recent months, which include implementing "an equity program associated with the toll projects" and continuing to "engage local partners as we move forward."

Asked if the equity program will incorporate a low-income exemption option for drivers unable to pay tolls, Putney said the department is working on a low-income tolling report due to the Oregon Legislature in September, with development of the report underway with recommendations from the Equity and Mobility Advisory Committee.

Putney added that the low-income report will be also discussed publicly and with regional transportation partners "over the next couple of months."

As ODOT proceeds with its federally required environmental assessment, it will analyze and present reports on two alternatives, a "build" option and a "no build" option.

Putney said analysis of both options is required under the National Environmental Policy Act and was always a part of the planned process, however "the feedback that we've been receiving from Metro and committees and various partners has been very helpful to help us think through exactly what questions we'll answer in the analysis that we'll do."

"We will have our draft environmental assessment out this summer, and that'll be available for public review and comment," she continued, adding that it will then be refined and finalized for a vote by the Federal Highway Administration, which will be looking for findings showing the project will have no significant environmental impact.

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