It has taken more than a year, but rumblings out of Oregon indicate officials there are finally starting to see the big picture regarding tolls along Portland freeways.
If the goal truly is to reduce congestion throughout the region, tolling plans should include Interstate 84, U.S. Highway 26 and state Highway 217. Only a comprehensive proposal that addresses all of Portland’s overburdened freeways will effectively prepare the area for a prosperous future.
Formal plans thus far have focused on Interstate 5 and Interstate 205, with an advisory committee recommending tolls on I-5 through the heart of Portland and on I-205 near the southern end of the freeway. Throughout the process, it has been clear that tolls on these federal freeways eventually would be extended to the state line — a plan that would disproportionately target drivers from Washington.
In a letter last week to U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., officials wrote that the Oregon Transportation Commission “will be asked to provide direction” about “conducting a systemwide feasibility analysis of pricing the regional freeway system.” That should have been the focus from the beginning of the laborious process.
Any tolls on interstate freeways such as I-5, I-205 and I-84 will require approval from the federal government, and Sean O’Hollaren, a member of the Policy Advisory Committee, has noted that the proposal for tolls on only I-5 and I-205 is not politically viable. “It will get blocked by the Washington state delegation (in Congress) if we don’t articulate a broader, more comprehensive vision now, up front.”
That lack of vision can be blamed on the Oregon Legislature, which created the issue last year by forming the advisory group. In targeting only I-5 and I-205, lawmakers took aim at Washington residents and the only conduits from Clark County to Oregon while ignoring the fact that 80 percent of the metro area’s population lives south of the Columbia River.
U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, has taken the lead in pointing out the unfairness of this idea, and other Washington officials have recently joined the chorus. In a recent letter to Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, Murray wrote, “consideration of broader regional value pricing should include a clear understanding that transportation improvements are tied to the corridor in which the revenue is generated to ensure those who pay experience the benefit during their commute.”
That effectively articulates the underlying issue. If the 70,000 Clark County residents who work in Oregon are paying an inordinate portion of the tolls, it is imperative those tolls benefit areas frequented by those drivers. During a recent meeting with The Columbian’s Editorial Board, Herrera Beutler said she could perhaps support a tolling plan that provides congestion relief for drivers who pay tolls, depending upon the details.
The failure to provide those details and the enmity that has arisen from Southwest Washington residents rests with Oregon’s leadership, which failed to fully consider the fallout from House Bill 2017. Rather than seek a much-needed comprehensive solution to Portland’s traffic woes, lawmakers approved a half-baked plan that reasonably can be viewed as an attempt to reach into the pockets of Washington residents.
If officials wish to address congestion through Portland, they must take a big-picture view of the issue — including tolls along all of the region’s major freeways.