The Oregon Transportation Commission voted Thursday to approve the state’s application to the federal government to consider tolling on portions of Interstate 5 and Interstate 205 in Portland.
The five-member commission voted unanimously to submit the application at its regular meeting in Salem.
The proposed stretches of tolled roads would include Interstate 5 between Southwest Multnomah Boulevard and North Going Street, a roughly 7-mile stretch through the heart of Portland, and Interstate 205 in and around the Abernethy Bridge around West Linn and Oregon City.
Few details beyond the general location of the toll areas have yet to be worked out, and would likely take years to decide, according to the commission and Oregon Department of Transportation staff. However, the proposal calls for variable toll rates, or value pricing. The toll pricing could vary based on traffic or time of day.
Oregon is considering the tolls as a means to ease traffic congestion and to raise money for construction projects aimed at relieving it. The cost of the tolls, or when they’d be in effect, have not yet been determined.
Federal law governs when tolling is allowed, especially for interstate highways. The law typically allows tolls on interstates for repairing or replacing bridges, tolling in a new lane, or turning a carpool lane into a toll lane, according to ODOT. Oregon is asking the Federal Highway Administration for authority to toll existing lanes under a federal pilot program for value pricing tolling.
The state’s application essentially asks the highway administration for its OK to proceed. The state wants to confirm whether the tolling plan would be eligible under federal tolling program rules, and is also asking for guidance on how it will have to proceed with environmental impact reviews.
The state’s proposal doesn’t speak to exactly where on those roadways tolling will start or stop. Nor do they indicate what any physical facilities might look like, what might be done to assist lower-income drivers, what transit options might be added to get people out of their cars, how traffic from those dodging tolls will affect the system, or if any exceptions will be made for Washington commuters.
Should the highway administration approve the application, Oregon’s next steps will include studies to answer those and other questions, ODOT staff and commission members say.
“The implications of not acting are significant economically, environmentally and socially,” said Bob Van Brocklin, commission vice chairman. “Doing nothing is not an option and we have to do something significant.”
The review of possible tolling on I-5 and I-205 kicked off at the behest of the Oregon Legislature, which in 2017 approved a $5.3 billion funding package to pay for congestion-reducing projects, transit projects and other road improvements. Part of the deal included a request for the Oregon Transportation Commission to review value pricing tolling as a means to reduce congestion in the Portland area.
The transportation commission put together an advisory committee, which included Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle and Clark County Councilor Eileen Quiring, to provide a recommendation on a highway congestion pricing plan. The committee recommended looking at tolling through the two stretches.
U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, again decried the vote as an early step to a cash grab by Oregon, which would include tolling some of the busiest, and therefore most lucrative, spots on the freeways.
“Oregon knows revenue can be collected at those spots without any political recourse from Southwest Washington residents who have no vote in the matter, which is why it continues to barrel ahead without presenting any kind of plan to improve the infrastructure that most Southwest Washingtonians actually use,” she said in a statement.
Herrera Beutler said she’d continue to oppose any plan that treats Washington drivers unfairly, or undermines what she called the area’s No. 1 transportation priority of an improved I-5 Bridge that can move more auto and freight traffic.