Tolling advisory group holds first meeting

Washington leaders voice Clark County commuters' concerns

By Jake Thomas, Columbian staff writer

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PORTLAND — Oregon’s plans to toll highways Clark County commuters rely on to get to work took another a step forward on Monday. But this step included officials representing Southwest Washington who used the inaugural meeting of a new regional advisory committee to make appeals on behalf of their constituents who may face more expensive commutes.

The Portland Region Value Pricing Advisory Committee held its initial meeting at Oregon Department of Transportation’s Portland regional offices on Monday. The committee is tasked with evaluating and making recommendations on a contentious part of Oregon’s $5.3 billion transportation plan that directs the department to develop a proposal for tolling or “value pricing” on Interstate 5 and Interstate 205 between the state line and where the two freeways meet south of Tualatin.

The proposal has been presented by Oregon as a means of managing congestion in the growing region and will ultimately require federal approval. Although any actual tolling is years away, the idea has drawn concern from Clark County commuters that they will be unfairly tolled on their commutes to Oregon while seeing little or no benefit.

In response to these concerns, ODOT offered three seats to Southwest Washington officials on the 25-member advisory committee, including Washington State Department of Transportation’s Southwest Regional Administrator Kris Strickler, Vancouver Mayor-elect Anne McEnerny-Ogle and Clark County Councilor Eileen Quiring. The committee is comprised of other local elected officials, government heads, as well as representatives from business groups and nonprofits from the Portland area. On Monday, members of the committee offered their initial concerns, goals and questions regarding its work in the coming months.

“We have to work in partnership with Washington state, with Vancouver, in a constructive way,” said Sean O’Hollaren, a member of the Oregon Transportation Commission, who added that there was no single solution to solving the region’s increasing congestion problem. “We are making some assumptions, and those assumptions are that people from Vancouver want to spend time in traffic no less than people in Portland.”

McEnerny-Ogle wasn’t present for the meeting but sent a letter that was read at the committee. In the letter, McEnerny-Ogle wrote that it would be preferable for staff to refer to the project’s geography as the “Portland-Vancouver Metro Area.” She asked for clarity on the exact definition of a “bottleneck relief project.” She also asked that data be produced to help Vancouver residents who rely on the bridges to understand how traffic patterns will be affected by value pricing options. She also asked for a socioeconomic breakdown of how value pricing would affect Vancouver residents.

Additionally, McEnerny-Ogle asked if it was possible for the committee to hold a meeting in Southwest Washington to get public input. Penny Mabie, who facilitated the meeting, said the committee would hold all its meeting at ODOT’s office because of its central location. She added that there are efforts to get public input from Southwest Washington.

Quiring, a former Republican Oregon legislator who now represents the most rural district on the Clark County council, has been critical of the proposed tolls and volunteered to serve on the committee after council Chair Marc Boldt declined an invitation. At the meeting, she made few remarks.

“What I hope to do is represent the 75,000 commuters that come from Clark County and Southwest Washington to make sure they are not overly impacted by what happens here at the committee,” she said. “But I would also like to add anything that I can to the discussion.”

Strickler made brief remarks at the beginning of the meeting noting that any tolling that occurred on the bridge or state line would not be equitable to Washington commuters.

The committee also heard presentations about how congestion on I-5 has gotten steadily worse and how value pricing could help.

Mandy Putney, ODOT planning manager, presented numbers showing that between 2013 and 2015, the number of bottlenecks on the I-5 corridor has increased from 11 to 12. In 2015, the I-5 corridor saw more than 15 hours of congestion, going both northbound and southbound, each day. Northbound traffic saw a 9 percent increase in daily hours of congestion from 2013, while southbound saw a less than 1 percent increase.

She said that I-205 has seen its bottlenecks increase from four to six in this time period. Daily hours of congestion increased northbound by 32 percent to 10 hours on I-205. Southbound increased 47 percent to 10 hours of daily congestion.

Trey Baker, a consultant, explained that value pricing seeks to manage demand for the limited supply of highways by putting a price on it during peak traffic periods. He explained that the demand won’t go away but instead will be met on public transit or at different hours.

He said that entire roadways could be priced, or individual lanes could be priced to allow faster travel in them. Baker pointed to examples across the country, notably the SR-520 Floating Bridge in the Puget Sound area.

“It might seem counterintuitive, but pricing can actually save billions of dollars in lost time and monetary costs because when you price you are achieving higher and more efficient travel speeds,” he said.

Toward the end of the 2 1/2 hour meeting, O’Hollaren said that “this is the beginning of an ongoing conversation.”

The committee will have five more meetings and is expected to make recommendations to the Oregon Transportation Commission in June.