PORTLAND, Ore. – A massive $5.3 billion transportation package that Oregon lawmakers recently passed sets in motion a plan that could lead to tolls on some of Portland’s busiest highways.
Seeing as the mere thought of tolls elicits a strong reaction among many Oregonians, we wanted to clear up some of the facts and misconceptions around the future of tolling in Portland.
What does the transportation bill say about tolls?
The bill, known as HB 2017, instructs state transportation officials to create a plan for something called “value pricing” to reduce traffic congestion.
So what is “value pricing?” It’s essentially a toll that varies in price depending on how much traffic is on the highway.
ODOT Assistant Director Travis Brouwer explained that value pricing can take several different forms.
One option includes changing the price depending on the time of day. For instance, drivers could end up paying a higher toll during rush hour compared to off-peak hours.
Another option: turn HOV lanes into tolled express lanes. That would give drivers the option to pay for a faster lane or drive in more congested lanes for free.
The Washington transportation department uses this approach on I-405 east of Seattle. Drivers can pay to enter an express lane and the price changes depending on the congestion.
Those are just ideas at this point. Brouwer cautioned it’s too early to know exactly what form tolls in Portland could take.
“It is by no means determined in this legislation what precisely will be tolled or how much the tolls would be,” Brouwer said. “We’re at a very early point in this process.”
When could we see tolls?
The short answer: not anytime soon.
Huge transportation projects tend to take a long time and require a lot of planning, and this is no exception.
The law states the Oregon Transportation Commission has until the end of 2018 just to ask for permission from the feds to put tolls on interstate highways in Oregon.
Brouwer said many details of tolls in Oregon will depend on approval from the Federal Highway Administration. Federal law currently restricts adding new tolls to highways except in certain circumstances, like tolling only a high-occupancy lane or when building a new bridge.
“We have to find an opportunity to work within those laws or see them waive those laws,” Brouwer said.
Where could we see tolls?
Pending approval from the feds, the legislation calls out two problem areas in Portland for immediate attention: I-5 and I-205 between the Washington border and their junction just north of Wilsonville.
Brouwer said those two areas are the most congested routes in the state and would generate significant revenue.
The bill also gives the Oregon Transportation Commission the power to implement value pricing anywhere else in the state if they see fit to do so.
What would tolls look like?
Once again, the short answer: it’s too early to tell. But don’t expect to see a toll booth pop up.
Modern tolling technology uses things like license-plate readers or electronic beacons to track drivers on toll roads. In Washington, for example, drivers on the I-405 express lane can have tolls deducted from an account without ever stopping at a booth.
“We would hope to find those high-tech options that would make this a user-friendly system should we implement tolling,” Brouwer said.
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