PORTLAND, Ore. — At this stage in the game, tolling on Oregon interstates appears inevitable, coming on like a 30-ton truck and trailer. The first tolls on I-205 could begin in less than two years, around December of 2024.
As a result, Oregon has a few big committees meeting right now to decide the particulars, like how much the tolls should be and where the money should go.
One of those groups met Monday, and the meeting showcased where we're at in the conversation; featuring the Oregon Department of Transportation's admonishments of people who oppose the tolls, tensions with those who represent the trucking industry, and a plea from a city leader in the path of these toll routes.
From the outside, these committee meetings aren't the most lively events you'll come across. But sometimes, if you're paying attention, they can reveal the stresses and strains of the communities that they concern.
What ODOT expects to gain
Monday's ODOT committee is called RTAC, or the Regional Tolling Advisory committee. It's made up of local government officials like the president of Metro, a county commissioner, a member of Portland City Council, among others.
RTAC is the group that will likely decide where tolling money is spent, although they're still arguing over the shape of the charter.
ODOT plans to set up multiple tolling stations on both I-205 and I-5 over the next few years. That has local governments very interested in where the toll money will go, because they want a lot of it spent on keeping traffic off other streets when people bail off the interstate to avoid tolls.
At this meeting, ODOT delivered an estimate on how much these particular tolls on I-205 — just the first ones under consideration, on either side of West Linn — will generate. According to the official, they would raise an estimated $500 to $800 million over about 25 to 30 years.
Assuming the total is 30 years, that means the tolls would raise between $16 and $26 million per year for ODOT.
It's worth noting, however, that estimates like these could change radically as the details of these tolling proposals are changed and solidified.
Meanwhile, director of ODOT's tolling programs Mandy Putney took the opportunity to push back against those who are arguing against tolling. It came up as she discussed a budget note from lawmakers in the 2021 session on a bill that involves tolling.
"The budget note also reaffirmed that additional funding sources including tolls are needed to keep up with transportation investments and needs and that the use of tolls is a fair and impartial way to improve the system for roadway users," Putney said.
"The I-205 improvements now under construction have used the financing options provided by HB 3055," she continued. "Pending completion of the environmental process underway for I-205 now, toll revenue could be used to pay back our costs that we've put out so far. Without toll revenue, the improvements on the rest of I-205 between Stafford Road and Oregon 213 will not move forward."
Where will the drivers go?
Putney also had an exchange with Jana Jarvis, who represents the Oregon Trucking Association. It's clear that Jarvis' organization is not entirely on board with this tolling plan.
"It might be helpful for you to understand that from the trucking perspective, trucks that are passing through Oregon tend to take 205 to avoid congestion on I-5. The trucks that are on I-5 are there because they are having to service the businesses in the Portland area, the ports, Rivergate etcetera," Jarvis said. "They are there because they have to be. But I can promise you that commercial traffic from out of state that's going through Oregon will probably divert to I-5 with tolling."
"Right now what we're showing is that with tolling and with the added third lane, when we're looking at the future we're able offer a much better trip for freight as well as for residents," Putney replied. "So that we're looking at a situation where we'd have zero to 2 hours' congestion on that area of 205."
If accurate, these estimates would represent a marked improvement on commute times along I-205. Putney said that if nothing is done — if there's no tolling or the addition of a third lane — I-205 will be backed up 14 hours a day by 2045.
Finally, much of the pushback to tolling is coming from the people living in communities that sit along the line of fire, so to speak. They fear that when the polls arrive, they will cause drivers to bail onto surface roads to avoid the toll stations.
The leaders of cities like West Linn are united in that pushback — but if they can't stop tolling, they want ODOT to put some work into making it difficult for freeway freebooters to clog their streets.
"West Linn is known for being wealthy," said West Linn council president Mary Baumgardner. "But I can tell you after working for 15 years in the school system, there are many many people who are suffering financially and have been. And in the most recent past of course, our community has suffered from the impacts of COVID. And our small businesses have been barely hanging on.
"And if we have grid-locked traffic on our surface streets, people will avoid the area for all the reasons stated previously. Commercial — they'll avoid the area and burden I-5. People who would come on 205 to visit our community will go somewhere else. So please hear us. We would like regional implementation. I'm not against tolling — we need funding mechanisms for our transportation infrastructure. But we need ODOT to listen. thank you."
If and when these tolls begin, it will mark a major shift in how Oregon pays for its roads. The groundwork is being laid for a new era, a tolling era, the likes of which the Beaver State has never seen before.
A number of KGW viewers have sent in reminders that there were tolls on the Interstate Bridge that connects Portland and Vancouver after it was first erected. That's true, but the tolls were temporary and they disappeared when the project was paid down.
ODOT's plan, backed by the Oregon legislature, will add tolls to parts of I-5 and I-205 that don't necessarily have bridges, new or otherwise. And it's increasingly clear that once the tolls go on, they're not coming off.