Oregon Cities

A plan to toll Portland highways is dead — but tolling is still on the table

Cars travel along Interstate 5 through Portland, Ore., Friday, Nov. 1, 2019.

Cars travel along Interstate 5 through Portland, Ore., Friday, Nov. 1, 2019.

Bradley W. Parks / OPB

Oregon’s long, limping journey toward tolling Portland-area freeways came to a sudden halt Monday.

Facing backlash from citizens and looming questions about what tolling would look like, Gov. Tina Kotek killed one effort that would have set tolls on Interstates 5 and 205 in order to curb rush hour congestion. She paused another proposal to toll a single bridge on I-205 to pay for seismic upgrades.

Those projects, the governor suggested in a letter to the Oregon Transportation Commission, had become a money suck without clear benefits.

“Taking this action today will allow the state to focus its limited resources on high priority needs and provide an opportunity for meaningful legislative conversations about alternative revenue sources in the 2025 legislative session,” Kotek wrote.

The decision marks a major setback for tolling plans the state has spent seven years and $61 million building. But some of the state’s top transportation officials insisted that the governor’s letter was not the end of the discussion. Tolls will still be on the table next year, when lawmakers are expected to reshape Oregon’s system for funding road maintenance and other transportation projects.

“That letter did not disrupt what we’re doing at the Legislature or what we planned to get completed,” said Rep. Susan McLain, D-Forest Grove, a co-chair of the Legislature’s Joint Transportation Committee. She added that Oregon needs “stable and sufficient” transportation dollars that the public can support.

“While I believe tolling cannot be the only tool to solve all our challenges, as steward of our state’s transportation system, I believe it should be one of our tools,” Julie Brown, chair of the Oregon Transportation Commission, said in a statement.

For the time being, the governor has told the Oregon Department of Transportation to focus its efforts elsewhere. The agency has briefed lawmakers repeatedly on efforts to toll Portland’s freeways in recent weeks, with no suggestion that the projects could be upended.

Plans to pay for a new Interstate Bridge partly with tolls appear largely unaffected in light of Kotek’s announcement — with one change: Transportation leaders in Washington, not Oregon, are now expected to administer tolls required to pay for the massive bridge.

Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle, one of the primary political leaders on the bridge replacement, said Washington’s transportation department is well-prepared to oversee tolls.

“They already have the infrastructure on it,” McEnerny-Ogle said. “So, no big thing.”

Kotek was speaker of the Oregon House in 2017 when the Legislature passed the expansive transportation bill that kickstarted tolling plans in earnest. Three years later, while still speaker, she called for “more immediate implementation of regionwide congestion pricing and tolling for the entire region.”

But lately the governor’s support has flagged. Last year, facing backlash from members of her own party, the governor instructed the Oregon Department of Transportation to delay the implementation of any tolls until 2026 at earliest.

Political pressure against tolling has been mounting for years in the Portland metro region — particularly Clackamas County, where residents feared what I-205 tolls would mean for their pocketbooks and the amount of traffic surging to surface roads to avoid paying fees. A February poll by the firm DHM Research found 91% of Clackamas County residents surveyed were opposed to tolls. That’s a fact not lost on Democrats who hold potentially vulnerable legislative seats there.

The pressure could have ratcheted up further when ODOT unveiled the potential price of what it called the Regional Mobility Pricing Program, the proposal to introduce tolls on I-5 and I-205 that would have surged during rush hour to reduce congestion.

ODOT recently presented lawmakers with possible tolls on the Abernethy Bridge, where I-205 crosses the Willamette River. The agency’s central goal in tolling the bridge was to recoup costs of seismic retrofits that are ongoing. But if it had been aiming to cut congestion with tolls, ODOT said, they might need to be as high as $5.60 during evening rush hour.

“I think congestion pricing would be more expensive for drivers than perhaps originally envisioned,” ODOT spokesperson Kevin Glenn said.

For the governor, it helped lead to a conclusion that Oregon should stop throwing money into a highly unpopular plan. “Continuing on this path would only expend significant public resources advancing an effort likely to only result in continued frustration in the Portland region,” Kotek said in a statement.

The decision creates an immediate question about the ongoing seismic retrofits of the Abernethy Bridge, which the state has been counting on funding with hundreds of millions of dollars in tolls. Those tolls are still possible under Kotek’s letter, but no longer assured.

“By saying they’re not moving ahead with tolling, that aggravates an already precarious ODOT funding situation,” said Joe Cortright, a Portland economist and a leading critic of state megaprojects that widen freeways. He added: “How they pay for the Abernethy Bridge looks very ambiguous to me.”

McLain, the transportation committee co-chair, said Kotek’s announcement was prudent as lawmakers prepare a plan for reshaping how Oregon funds its transportation system in the years to come. ODOT faces a long-term funding crisis because of declining gas tax revenues.

“We still have the same task in front of us, which is to make sure that we complete our process at the legislature to look for future, adequate, sufficient funding,” McLain said. But she added she did worry that, now that it’s stalled, a plan for tolling Portland highways might be hard to revive.

Some legislative Democrats in Clackamas County have pushed back repeatedly on tolling. They celebrated the governor’s announcement Tuesday.

“We worked hard to ensure that the voices of those in our communities were heard in public meetings, testimony, and advocacy,” said a statement from Reps. Annessa Hartman, D-Gladstone, Jules Walters, D-West Linn, and Courtney Neron, D-Wilsonville. “This tolling reversal means a lot to those who live and work here.”

OPB’s Troy Brynelson contributed to this story.

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