Wednesday, August 10, 2022
Aug. 10, 2022

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In Our View: Remain Wary on Tolls

Oregon panel’s favored option more palatable for county, but worries remain

The Columbian
Published:

We are not quite ready to break out the noisemakers and streamers. While the latest news from Oregon’s Value Pricing Policy Advisory Committee is encouraging, it is not yet a cause for celebration.

At its latest meeting, according to Columbian reporter Katy Sword, the committee appeared to be leaning toward a plan for tolls along an eight-mile stretch of Interstate 5 — from south of the Marquam Bridge, which carries I-5 over the Willamette River south of downtown Portland, to the Albina district in North Portland.

This plan, known as Concept B, would be preferable in our view to Concept C, which calls for tolls along I-5 and Interstate 205 beginning at the state line. Until Oregon officials acknowledge that Concept C would be an egregious targeting of Clark County residents, we remain leery of any tolling proposal.

Created last year by the Oregon Legislature, the value pricing committee is tasked with devising tolls to lessen congestion along I-5 and I-205. As the primary conduits through the city, the federally owned freeways are prone to backups at all hours of the day. Notably for drivers from Washington, those freeways also serve as the only Clark County bridges between Vancouver and Portland, leaving the 70,000 local residents who work in Oregon little choice for their daily commute.

We agree with the Oregon Legislature that congestion in Portland must be addressed. But the formation of the committee reflects a curious approach. If traffic relief were the primary goal, the Legislature would have instructed the committee to also consider tolls along Interstate 405 through downtown Portland and along U.S. Route 26 to the west of the city.

Instead, the focus is upon I-5 and I-205. Placing tolls along the northern ends of the freeways will disproportionately target Clark County residents to pay for highway projects in Oregon that, in many cases, provide those drivers with few benefits. If toll revenue was earmarked for a replacement I-5 bridge and eventually a third bridge across the Columbia, we would be more amenable to the proposal. Instead, we remain skeptical, particularly with the prospect of systemwide tolls still in play.

That would be the result of Concept C, which calls for tolls along all lanes of the freeways beginning at the state line. Such an option leaves drivers from Washington with no alternative for avoiding tolls and leaves them at the mercy of Oregon officials who determine the price for passage. As a cautionary tale, we point to express lanes along Interstate 66 in Virginia, where dynamic tolls that adjust to the volume of traffic have been as high as $47 for a single trip by a single vehicle.

Oregon officials are considering tolls ranging between 10 cents per mile and 26 cents per mile, depending upon traffic and the time of day. A trip along the proposed eight-mile corridor would range from 80 cents to $2.08.

From the Clark County perspective, two results could make that proposal palatable: A reduction in congestion because fewer people are driving those roads; and construction projects in areas that benefit the drivers who are paying for them. We support user fees that charge motorists as long those fees provide tangible perks. Yet, we remain cautious. As long as the possibility of extending tolls to the Washington-Oregon state line remains in play, we are unconvinced that Oregon’s pricing plan will provide adequate value for Washington residents.

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