As members of the Oregon Transportation Commission, we travel around the state listening to what Oregonians want and need from their transportation system. And everywhere we go, we hear about how bad congestion is in the Portland metro region.
The numbers bear this out: Drivers in the Portland metro area experienced a 14 percent increase in hours of congestion between 2013 and 2015. As congestion grew, travel delays increased almost 23 percent in the same time period.
One of the corridors where congestion grew the most was Interstate 205 between Interstate 5 and Sunnyside Road. As congestion has grown the freeway has become increasingly unreliable, making it hard to plan a trip. Drivers who need to arrive on time — to get to work, or pick up a child at day care, or make it to a flight at PDX — need to add a 22-minute buffer or they risk being late.
This congestion impacts the economy through delayed movement of goods and services and compromises reliability and certainty for employers and employees.
Our quality of life is reduced as we sit in cars or buses trying to make it to work and family commitments on time. Commuters, business travelers, freight haulers and others now struggle to plan consistent departure and arrival times. With population growth, congestion will continue to grow.
The good news is that congestion relief is on the way. The transportation investment package passed by the Oregon Legislature in 2017, known as Keep Oregon Moving, funds new highway lanes to address bottlenecks, provides more transit, biking and walking options so people have choices to get around, and improves freight rail service to move goods by train rather than truck.
But while these new investments will help reduce traffic congestion, they won't make the impact the public needs without using additional tools.
More than a year ago, Oregon started studying congestion pricing in the Portland area due to legislative direction in Keep Oregon Moving. Now, with the first details starting to emerge, we can see how tolling can bring major improvements to Interstate 205 in Clackamas County.
ODOT has been developing plans for widening the highway and making seismic upgrades for the critical Abernethy Bridge. These improvements, long on the planning books, will bring a smoother, safer and less congested trip. Plans call for:
•Widening I-205 between OR 99E and Stafford Road, adding a third lane in each direction where there are now two.
• Reconstructing nine bridges along the corridor.
• Seismically upgrading the Abernethy Bridge, improving its ability to survive the major earthquake the region expects.
These improvements, expected to cost about $500 million, now have funding only for design — which is where tolling comes in.
After the Legislature passed Keep Oregon Moving and directed the Oregon Transportation Commission to develop a tolling proposal on Interstate 5 and on Interstate 205, the OTC formed an advisory committee to come up with a plan tailored to the region's needs.
This committee identified the opportunity to use tolling to improve congestion on I-205, including paying for the construction of new lanes that will address the existing bottleneck between I-5 and the Willamette River.
On Dec. 6, the Oregon Transportation Commission approved an application to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) asking them to allow us to further evaluate tolling for the Portland area, including this section of I-205 as well as along Interstate 5 around downtown Portland.
Several steps have to happen before any tolls are levied. If Oregon gets federal approval to move forward, planning would be followed by a review that would help determine exactly where tolls would start and finish, the cost and time of day they'd be in place, as well as figure out how to minimize and mitigate negative impacts. Funding and construction of the infrastructure would follow with tolls starting sometime in the middle of the next decade.
Over the past year, ODOT sought public input and connected more than 30,000 times with the public through surveys, online comments and in-person meetings. The public clearly identified three priorities that are critical for the success of the tolling effort. They are:
• Providing special provisions for low-income communities with already stressed budgets.
• Creating policies to ease the continuing impact of diversion onto neighborhood streets.
• Improving public transit and other transportation options to provide reliable alternatives.
We take seriously the concerns raised by thousands of people who participated in this process, and we want to make sure whatever we implement addresses community concerns and improves the region's transportation system.
Ways of addressing these three issues will be developed with public input in future studies before any tolls are put in place.
Tolls have been effectively used in many states to help ease congestion. We believe tolls and the projects they pay for will help us ease congestion, making it easier for freight, commuters and emergency services to move through the region and addressing the seismic vulnerabilities of our bridges.
No issue unites the Portland-Vancouver metro region quite like traffic congestion. It's getting worse as our population and economy grow, it costs money, and it costs us time that could be spent with our family and friends doing things we love.
No magic plan will make everything better, but we can make real progress when we marshal our energies into a broad assault on the problem. These steps we take today could improve travel into the future, with fewer delays, better freight movement and less aggravation.
Tammy Baney is chair of the Oregon Transportation Commission. Alando Simpson is a member of the Oregon Transportation Commission and was co-chair of the Value Pricing Advisory Committee
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