Kotek: No tolling now, but maybe tolling later

Gov. Tina Kotek says her pause on tolling now for Portland metro area freeways should not be read as no tolling ever for Oregon highways and bridges.

But Kotek halted the current toll-making process set in motion by 2017 legislation, which left it to the Oregon Department of Transportation and the Oregon Transportation Commission to figure out how to reduce metro traffic congestion and raise money for new projects. She had already paused its implementation until Jan. 1, 2026.

Kotek told reporters on Thursday, March 14, that the broader question should be decided by legislators next year, when they will take up the next long-term plan for transportation projects and funding.

It was her first chance to explain the reasoning behind her letter earlier this week to the commission, which is ODOT’s policy-making arm.

“What my decision said is that the process started in the 2017 Legislature was not ready to go all the way through,” she said in her first news conference since the 2024 Legislature closed on March 7.

“That does not mean that tolling in itself as a mechanism should not be considered. But we got to the point where, if we are going to spend more money to stand up the tolling infrastructure here in Oregon, we needed to have more certainty. We were planning to spend a lot of money to do that. Frankly, I did not think we knew we had the certainty to actually implement it.”

According to some reports, the cost of implementing tolls on metro area freeways would leave little for support of new projects. Tolling also drew strong opposition from officials and in public opinion surveys.

A topic for 2025

The Legislature’s Joint Committee on Transportation is preparing for a round of statewide meetings, similar to what it did in 2016 in advance of the session that approved the most recent plan for transportation projects and funding.

Sen. Chris Gorsek, a Democrat from Gresham and committee co-chair, said Tuesday he welcomed Kotek’s letter to relieve what he termed “insane” pressure against the current tolling process. But he and Rep. Susan McLain, a Democrat from Forest Grove and the other co-chair, have said tolling must be on the table as one of the options for future funding.

The Oregon Constitution has earmarked fuel taxes and vehicle and license fees to pay for road and bridge work. The 2017 law added a statewide payroll tax, which funds expanded transit service statewide. The gasoline tax is 40 cents per gallon, and the weight-mile tax paid by truckers already faces lawsuits because they allege they are paying more than their allocated share of highway costs.

Kotek was House speaker when the 2017 plan became law. She said it is up to legislators, not ODOT and the commission, to decide whether tolling has a place in funding.

“I think you have to talk about all the sources, including tolling, to figure that out,” she said.

“But the Legislature has to reset the conversation. The way it was set up for the metro area with the regional pricing project was not going to work. So they need to go back to the drawing table.”

Legislators, at Kotek’s request, dipped into the state general fund — largely from personal and corporate income taxes — for $19 million for ODOT winter highway maintenance and $20 million for ODOT cleanup of graffiti and trash along Portland area freeways.

“The fact that ODOT needed extra money this session for them to do basic maintenance shows you that we’re at the end of this (2017) package — and we need a new package with new resources,” she said. “And the world has changed, so we have to have different ways to fund transportation.”

First things first

The U.S. Department of Transportation has announced a $450 million grant for the reworking of the Rose Quarter interchange of Interstates 5 and 84, including additional lanes and a cover that will reconnect the Albina neighborhood split by construction of the original I-5 in the 1960s.

But Oregon has yet to commit any state money for the project, which could top $1 billion. The Legislature took no action in 2023 to fund it, one of several that hinged on proposed regional tolling.

Kotek said that any new funding approved by legislators next year will have to take into account the completion of that project and several others pending from 2017, including the widening and seismic reinforcement of the George Abernethy Bridge that spans the Willamette River between West Linn and Oregon City. Work on that project is well underway.

“One of my priorities for 2025 is that the funding they can pass will actually follow through on the commitments they made eight years ago,” she said.

“I want to be clear with legislators. We have to do the basics and complete the projects that are in the queue before we start new projects. So they are going to have to figure out how to fund first things first.”

I-5 bridge is separate

Excluded from Kotek’s tolling pause is the pending replacement of the Interstate Bridge that spans the Columbia River between Portland and Vancouver, Wash. A $600 million federal grant has been announced for the project, which would replace spans built in 1917 (northbound) and 1958 (southbound). Oregon and Washington officials hope for $2 billion more for the project, which is already estimated at $6 billion. New estimates are due soon.

Both states have pledged $1 billion each, and legislatures in both states have authorized the transportation commissions to negotiate toll rates. But designs have yet to be chosen, a supplemental environmental impact statement must be completed and the required permits approved before construction can begin — and that is at least two years away.

Two members from each state’s transportation commission have started a public process to determine what the tolls should be.


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