Are Tolls already a Done Deal when Officials ask for Public Comments?

Even before the COVID-19 crisis, funding new roads and bridges has been challenging. Inevitably, the idea of creating tolls to fund new builds or rebuilds comes up for discussion. Sometimes toll roads are ramrodded through with little public input as happened in Florida recently. Residents in San Clemente, California, have been organizing for years against a toll road spur. Local elected officials sometimes get involved, such as what is now happening in Oregon.

Clackamas County commissioners recently asked the Oregon lawmakers and Governor Kate Brown to find a different funding source other than tolling for Interstate 205 expansion. County Chair Jim Bernard suggested to state officials that perhaps some of the funding that is now up in the air for Interstate 5 in the Portland Rose Quarter expansion be used to fund the lane expansion between Lake Oswego and Oregon City.

Before the pandemic, an average of 100,000 vehicles traveled I-205 every day. This cost the economy $2 million per day due to congestion. Officials expect the same congestion to return to pre-COVID levels in the future and add that tolling will improve traffic because motorists will adjust their travel time to pay a lower toll or take an alternate route.

Taking an alternate route through already congested city streets and neighborhoods is a problem for many small towns and city leaders. State Representative Rachel Prusak from West Linn testified in a statehouse committee that increased traffic congestion on I-205 has already caused alternate route driving. An ODOT report showed that there’d been a 260 percent increase in traffic reentering I-205 at the Stafford exit. Prusak said that this translates to 4,100 vehicles diverting through local roads every day. She added, “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.”

In May, two Lake Oswego city councilors Daniel Nguyen and Jackie Manz said they were worried that these I-205 tolls would likely burden lower-income residents who have fewer options to work from home. Another councilor John Wendland asked if implementation on I-205 is even feasible since local drivers have never had to pay a toll before now. When making decisions about how to fund infrastructure, officials seem to never think about how a toll will affect everyday drivers. As prices go up on everything, and income stagnates, placing a toll on roads that drivers already supposedly pay for with gas taxes seems like double-dipping.

How to fund the I-205 expansion seems also inflexible. In 2017, the Oregon Legislature declared in a directive that the state DOT could only fund any I-205 expansion through tolling. Total estimated cost is $450 million. Lawmakers also increased the state’s gas tax by two cents biennially beginning in 2018 to pay for several other transportation projects with an expected cost of over $3.8 billion. Due to the COVID-19 crisis, though, gas taxes are down 40 percent (approximately $2 billion).

The Oregon DOT recently opened a public survey to gain feedback on five proposals for I-205 tolling around the Abernathy Bridge in Oregon City. ODOT officials propose an all-electronic, variable-rate (congestion pricing) tolling system to manage congestion and generate revenue for other needed transportation improvements. To participate in the survey, find it here.

ODOT is also hosting an online open house as well for more information.

It seems like this is pretty much a done deal, no matter what feedback the public gives on the survey or how much motorists educate themselves on the proposed tolls.

Motorists still need to work together with local and state officials to come up with alternatives to these kinds of tolls that have a congestion pricing element.

NMA also has resources that might help in local efforts to fight tolls and fight for proper funding of infrastructure.

Want to keep track of the many issues currently involved in tolls and other infrastructure funding? Take a daily peek at the NMA’s Driving News Feed or subscribe to Driving News Daily, a five times per week email.

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