PORTLAND — A committee of government officials and other leaders from across the region signed off on Oregon’s plans to toll limited sections of Interstates 5 and 205 in the Portland metro area as part of a strategy to relieve congestion.
The decision made Monday by the Portland Region Value Pricing Advisory Committee is another step in a yearslong process that still needs to be approved by the federal government.
While the decision could mean a more expensive commute for Clark County residents, the committee was split on a more ambitious tolling scheme. The committee also adopted some conciliatory measures for Clark County after residents and officials complained that the plan treated them as Oregon’s piggy bank.
“I know that people in Vancouver want to spend time in traffic no less than people in Portland or anywhere else in the region,” said Oregon Transportation Commissioner Sean O’Hollaren, who noted that Clark County residents are “part of the community.”
“But the problems we have can’t be addressed without investment, and we all need to have skin in the game. It has to be a user-fee-based system. It isn’t free,” he said.
The 25-member committee held the last of six meetings Monday at the Oregon Department of Transportation’s Portland regional offices. The committee was tasked with evaluating part of Oregon’s $5.3 billion transportation plan that directs the department to develop a proposal for tolling or “value pricing” on Interstates 5 and 205 between the state line and where the two freeways meet south of Tualatin.
The department has justified tolls as a way of managing traffic congestion as the region grows while generating revenue. Support for tolling varied among members of the committee, which included three representatives for Southwest Washington.
Out of the five tolling “concepts” the committee evaluated, they voted to recommend that the Oregon Transportation Commission pursue Concept B, which would toll all lanes between Southwest Multnomah Boulevard and Northeast Going Street on I-5. They also voted to back a modified version of Concept E, which adds tolling near the Abernathy Bridge and Stafford Road on I-205.
Committee members were given the option to either support, accept or oppose the concepts. Out of the members present, 10 voted to support it, six voted to accept it and two voted to oppose it.
Of the three officials representing Southwest Washington on the committee, Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle and Washington State Department of Transportation Regional Administrator Kris Strickler voted to accept the proposal. Clark County Councilor Eileen Quiring voted to oppose it.
However, the committee expressed mixed views about a more expansive tolling option. Concept C would extend tolling to all lanes of I-5 and I-205. In a separate vote to recommend that the tolling regime begin under Concept C, eight members voted to support it, one voted to accept it and eight voted to oppose it, including Southwest Washington’s representatives. One member didn’t vote.
The committee also voted on recommending to the commission that Concepts B and E be adopted as pilots as part of implementing Concept C. Nine members voted to support it, four voted to accept it and five voted to oppose it, including all of Southwest Washington’s representatives. Strickler expressed reservations about treating the tolling concepts as pilots in a larger scheme when it wasn’t clear what their effects would be.
“I still have great sympathy and empathy for our friends in Clark County,” said Washington County Commissioner Roy Rogers, a member of the committee. “They have no alternatives. So I like the phase that we kind of see how it works before we start taxing our neighbors to the north, with no benefits and no alternatives.”
‘Oregon’s piggy bank’?
Oregon tolling plans have drawn concern from elected officials in Southwest Washington and others that Clark County commuters would be unfairly tolled to pay for infrastructure in a state in which they don’t reside.
Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, has attempted to thwart Oregon’s tolling plan in Congress and issued a sharply worded statement shortly after the committee’s vote.
“How gullible do they think we are? Oregon’s ‘Concept C’ scheme to toll all Washington commuters at the state line is now their declared ‘Step Two,’ Herrera Beutler said in the statement. “Meanwhile, Oregon has no concrete plan to provide transportation improvements anywhere near the area where the toll would be collected. An afterthought about maybe, possibly studying providing a benefit to toll payers at some later date doesn’t justify exploiting us as Oregon’s piggy bank.”
Speaking after the meeting, McEnerny-Ogle struck a more optimistic note. She pointed out that Southwest Washington was included in the mitigation strategies that every member of the committee voted to either support or accept.
The mitigation strategy includes improving other transportation options, such as public transit or carpooling, while also trying to lessen the impact of tolls on low-income individuals. It also calls on future studies to look at how tolls would divert traffic.
During the meeting, McEnerny-Ogle successfully requested that the committee’s recommendations include language referencing the entire “regional bistate system” of transportation. She said that including this language recognizes C-Tran is the only provider of interstate transit in the area. Earlier this month, C-Tran’s board of directors sent a letter to the Oregon Department of Transportation inquiring about being exempted from tolls or even getting some of the revenue.
McEnerny-Ogle also said she hoped that the committee’s divided vote on Concept C would send a signal to the Oregon Transportation Commission.
“We’re not ready to jump in,” she said.
However, Quiring, in a follow-up text message, said Oregon seems set on tolling, which she said will hurt less-affluent commuters.
“Partly because they haven’t done anything with their choke points for so long that now it seems the only thing they can do is price people off of the freeway and call it good,” Quiring said.
A majority of the committee recommended that the Oregon Transportation Commission look into the feasibility of congestion pricing for other freeways in the Portland area and plan to add more capacity. The committee also widely agreed that tolling revenue be used to improve the region’s transportation system.
By the end of the year, the commission is expected to make a recommendation to the Federal Highway Administration. Even if approved, it’ll take years to implement a tolling scheme.