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News / Clark County News

Commuters consider cost, implications of tolls

Regular trips into Oregon on I-5, I-205 will have high impact

By Calley Hair, Columbian staff writer
Published: July 25, 2018, 6:06am
4 Photos
Mike Coffman of Vancouver loads a work bag into his car before starting his morning commute to Legacy Emmanuel Hospital in Portland early Tuesday morning. Coffman is one of Clark County’s estimated 70,000 commuters who work in Oregon and could be affected by the proposed tolls on I-5 and I-205.
Mike Coffman of Vancouver loads a work bag into his car before starting his morning commute to Legacy Emmanuel Hospital in Portland early Tuesday morning. Coffman is one of Clark County’s estimated 70,000 commuters who work in Oregon and could be affected by the proposed tolls on I-5 and I-205. (Nathan Howard/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

At 3:20 a.m. every Monday through Thursday, Mike Coffman departs from his Vancouver home for his 4 a.m. shift at Legacy Emanuel Hospital in Portland.

He used to work at 6 a.m., but by then the traffic was prohibitive, he said — Coffman much prefers knowing that he can make it in 40 minutes, even tucked within the convoy of overnight freight haulers.

A locksmith and carpenter coordinator at the hospital for more than 30 years, Coffman is one of the estimated 70,000 Clark County residents who commute to work in Oregon, and who count on the Interstate 5 and Interstate 205 bridges to make it into work.

Now, a proposal to toll those freeways at the Oregon border is slated to reach the Federal Highway Administration by the year’s end. Coffman and his wife, Laura, are among the Washington residents voicing frustration about being taxed to drive to work, where they already pay Oregon income taxes.

“We don’t have a choice. We both work in Portland. Mass transit doesn’t work for us,” Coffman said. “We’ll be stuck, whatever they do. It’s not going to alter our work commute one bit.”

Being neighborly

The Portland Metro Area Value Pricing Policy Advisory Committee, the group tasked with putting together potential tolling options, disbanded after its final meeting last month. The 25-member committee, including three representatives from Southwest Washington, came up with several congestion pricing options to pursue.

Their ultimate goal is to reduce the length and severity of rush-hour traffic on both freeways, the type of slowdowns that force commuters like Coffman to either move their shifts to odd hours or accept the inevitability of terrible traffic.

The committee recommended that tolls be implemented between Southwest Multnomah Boulevard and Northeast Going Street on I-5, as well as between the Abernathy Bridge and Stafford Road on I-205. This first phase would serve as a sort of trial period before implementing tolls on the bulk of both interstates.

But the Portland City Council announced in early July that they will lobby for tolls on all lanes of both I-5 and I-205. The final decision will be made by the Federal Highway Administration.

The announcement drew protest from some of Clark County’s leaders, many of whom attended a July 12 Oregon Transportation Commission listening session to express their dismay at feeling steamrolled by their larger southern neighbors.

“I feel a little odd,” said state Rep. Paul Harris, R- Vancouver. “As a state legislator, I’ve always advocated — I’ve been one that has not wanted to tax Oregon residents that come into Washington. For years, I’ve been a proponent of that. I feel like this is rather punitive, to be quite frank.”

Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle also attended the meeting, which lasted nearly four hours, to remind the commission that regional, bistate transportation system should be just that: bistate.

“All of the projects have equal applicability to Oregon and Washington,” McEnerny-Ogle said. “The OTC engages so many different people, sometimes we forget that Southwest Washington is part of this system.”

However, the listening session also included plenty of proponents of full tolling, citing its proven effectiveness across the United States in increasing travel speeds, reducing carbon emissions and collecting revenue.

The session also highlighted a split in how residents think the money generated by tolls should be spent. Some voiced that the revenue should be invested to increase road capacity, to better serve the users who actually pay the tolls. Others are pushing for toll revenue to go toward public transportation to reduce demand on the roads long-term.

“Everyone wants less congestion, an easier route to work or to school or wherever they’re going. They want it to be safer, more environmentally sound. But I haven’t really encountered too many people that want to pay for it. Thus lies our dilemma,” said Sean O’Hollaren, OTC commissioner.

“We have systems that were built in the 1960s and earlier, and our population is booming. It’s unsustainable.”

By the numbers

Over the last few years, daily traffic has actually held fairly steady across both bridges.

On average,138,214 cars passed over the I-5 bridge daily in June, slightly less than in both 2017 and 2016.

On I-205, 168,470 cars drove over daily in June, down very slightly from the June 2017 total and up by about 3,000 cars from 2016.

But over a longer period, traffic is rising on both, though faster on I-205. In June 2003, the I-5 bridge saw an average daily usage of 130,865, and I-205 saw just 144,200.

Of those vehicles, it’s possible to estimate how many were commuting to and from work. According to the 2018 Oregon Personal Income Tax Statistics compiled by the state’s Department of Revenue, 69,465 Clark County residents received Oregon tax returns in 2016 (the most recent data available).

It’s not a perfect metric — a portion of those returns, it can be assumed, went to people who moved permanently from Oregon to Clark County within the year. But it’s safe to assume that the vast majority of those people are commuters, as no other county in Washington state was statistically significant enough to be included in the data.

Nearly 70,000 Washingtonians, then, travel to Oregon to make a living, mostly during peak traffic times.

For a model of how tolling can work, it’s useful to turn to similar projects in the Seattle area.

On I-405, tolls from Bellevue to Everett have shown mixed results since their implementation in 2015. A report in The Seattle Times last year indicated that toll lanes — two lanes each way in the southern chunk of the stretch, one lane each way north of Woodinville — cost riders an average of around $3 per trip. During peak times, they climb to the cap of $10 per trip.

It’s pricey — Seattle’s toll lanes have earned the snarky moniker “Lexus lanes.” But the system is faster for everyone.

Even drivers who don’t use toll lanes save an average of 5 minutes over 17 miles. Of the drivers who do pay, southbound lanes will save 11 minutes during peak times, and northbound lanes will save 14 minutes.

By some metrics, the Seattle toll lanes have been moderately successful. They bring in more money than they cost to implement, and they’re just barely short of the speed benchmark — 45 mph, 90 percent of the time — at 88 percent of the time.

Overtaxed

As the cost structure of the proposed tolls on I-5 and I-205 has not yet been released, individual commuters aren’t sure how much the extra expense might eat into their budget.

Some of Clark County’s Portland commuters, who already pay Oregon income taxes and Washington sales taxes at home, are criticizing the tolling proposal as a further drain on their resources without representation at the decision-making level.

They also complain that the tolls would disproportionately penalize people who don’t have flexibility or bargaining power in their jobs, usually lower-paid workers.

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“If they could change the time when they work, they already would have,” Harris said. “You’re slapping a toll on them for working at the time the boss tells them to work.”

Ryan Bjerke, a Washington resident who works at Oregon Health & Science University Hospital, said he pays about $30 a day to commute to work even without the tolls — parking at work alone costs him $15 a day.

“Washington residents who work in Oregon are already paying an absurd amount of taxes to Oregon, and now they want to double-dip and get tolls as well?” Bjerke asked. “At most organizations, telecommuting is a common option, but here at OHSU it’s like pulling teeth to get a telecommuting agreement.”

For commuters like Coffman, who said he’s “philosophically opposed” to tolling, the dollar amount matters less than the principle. He plans on protesting with his wallet.

“Currently, we spend a sum of money weekly in Portland eating at various (mostly local) restaurants, and shopping at various (mostly local) merchants,” Coffman said. “We will make the choice to not spend another dime in Portland/Multnomah County.”

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Columbian staff writer