Oregon residents, local officials say highway tolling policy should include transit

Others said some residents will be disproportionately affected because of rivers

By: - July 20, 2022 4:59 pm

The Oregon Department of Transportation is seeking more public input about its tolling policy on roads including Interstate 5 in the Portland area. (Oregon Department of Transportation/Flickr)

Residents of Portland suburbs and local elected leaders on Wednesday urged state transportation officials to think about transit and potentially stranded drivers as they move toward installing tolls on some highways.

Oregon Transportation Department officials announced at the beginning of a 90-minute meeting on Wednesday that they’ll extend the deadline for written comments on changes to its toll policy until Sept. 15, instead of an initial deadline of Aug. 1.

To comment:

Oregonians can submit comments about the policy on this webpage until Sept. 15. 

The state doesn’t have tolled roads now, though drivers must pay a toll on two Columbia River bridges from Cascade Lakes and Hood River. The proposed policy changes would create a blueprint for the Transportation Department to follow when considering adding tolls to new or existing roads. 

For now, the department is only considering charging drivers along interstates 5 and 205 in and around Portland. If implemented, those tolls would cost more during high-travel periods, like morning and evening rush hour.

“The intent of congestion pricing is to change some users’ behavior so that they choose a different mode of transportation, time of day, route or not to make the trip,” the draft policy says. 

But the policy isn’t limited to Portland. Depending on how tolling plays out in the Portland area, it could expand to highways throughout the state. 

Washington has a similar model,with weekday express toll lanes on Interstate 405 between the Seattle suburbs of Lynnwood or Bellevue and on Washington route 167 between the suburbs Auburn and Pacific. People who carpool or pay a toll – sometimes as high as $9 per trip – can use those lanes and avoid some traffic. 

Shoshana Cohen, the intergovernmental, resources and policy affairs manager for the Portland Bureau of Transportation, said the proposed Oregon policy is “just shifting problems” from state highways to local roads.

The policy seems designed to cause drivers who would normally use highways for short trips to move to local roads, she said. That wouldn’t result in fewer miles driven, but it would mean more traffic and wear and tear on city streets.

Tara O’Brien, senior government affairs coordinator at Trimet, which operates transit in Washington, Multnomah and Clackamas counties, said the transit provider generally supports congestion-based tolling but she said the proposal needs work.

The draft policy says transit and multimodal transportation – combinations of walking, biking, buses, light rail and driving – “should be increased,” but O’Brien said that isn’t specific enough. 

“We don’t think this policy does enough to emphasize the transit and multimodal investment needs,” she said. 

Others said tolling would place too high a burden on some Oregonians, including the roughly 3,500 residents of the Charbonneau neighborhood of Wilsonville. The Willamette River separates the area from the rest of the city, and the only way to get between the two sections of Wilsonville is the Boone Bridge crossing on Interstate 5. 

“I know of no other neighborhood in Portland that would be faced with a toll just to go to the library or grocery store,” said Steve Switzer, a member of the Charbonneau Country Club board of directors. That club comprises 13 homeowners’ associations. 

Michelle Tafoya, a paralegal from rural Oregon City who works in West Linn, said she crosses a bridge on Interstate 205 four times a day to get to and from work, and a tolling plan would mean she pays each time. There isn’t reliable transit in her area, she said. 

“It doesn’t feel like anyone’s listening to us in these small Clackamas County communities,” Tafoya said.

The Oregon Transportation Commission expects to make a final decision later this fall, then start setting toll rates this winter, though tolls aren’t expected until 2024. 

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Julia Shumway
Julia Shumway

Julia Shumway has reported on government and politics in Iowa and Nebraska, spent time at the Bend Bulletin and most recently was a legislative reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times in Phoenix. An award-winning journalist, Julia most recently reported on the tangled efforts to audit the presidential results in Arizona.

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