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Tolling Points

Portland, Oregon Grapples with Congestion Pricing

Bill Cramer

As Portland, Oregon begins grappling with how to design a tolling system to deal with its epic traffic congestion problem, a local newspaper is weighing in with a nuanced view of the trade-offs involved.

While the introduction of tolls on the city’s freeways is still years away, “that isn't stopping people from commencing a battle now over the prospect of having to pay to drive,” the Portland Tribune editorial board writes. “The underlying question is whether tolls should be used as a disincentive for venturing onto freeways at certain times of the day, or whether they only should be utilized to pay for new lanes and bridges.”

But “either way, we feel safe in predicting that tolls won't be popular, but that without them, gridlock in the metro area will get worse.”

Kill an Idea, Prevent Experimentation

With the Oregon Transportation Commission about to submit a congestion pricing proposal for federal government review, elected officials in the state are already distinguishing tolls that pay for new capacity from those designed to shift drive times. “If state Rep. Julie Parrish, R-West Linn, and other local politicians have their way, any tolling that's designed for the sole purpose of changing people's driving habits will hit another form of gridlock—one of the political variety,” the editors state.

Parrish is backing a new initiative that would place any new tolls on a state ballot in 2020, unless their sole purpose is to pay for new capacity. “Requiring a public vote for a potentially unpopular and poorly understood program is one way to kill the idea,” the Tribune notes. “Parrish would say that's democracy in action, but it also has the effect of preventing experimentation with a concept that yet could prove valuable for a metro area choking on peak-time traffic. “

The editors remind their readers that “congestion pricing isn't some quirky Portlandia invention. Cities such as Atlanta, Los Angeles and Seattle already have some form of this tolling in place.”

Congestion is Already a Pain

The other factor, they say, is that congestion is already hurting the region. The community is growing, with tens of thousands of new arrivals adding their cars to Portland traffic each year. Ride-hailing services have made traffic worse, not better, not least because they’re drawing riders away from public transit with the promise of door-to-door service. State gas tax revenues are drying up, while federal transportation funding dwindles.

And local commuters are—literally—stuck in the middle.

“Like other big issues facing Oregon, the transportation problem can seem unsolvable,” the Tribune concludes. “But for the average person trying to make his or her way to work, school or the grocery store, traffic congestion is a maddening frustration. And that means the state must move forward.” While the editors seem more comfortable with tolls dedicated to new infrastructure, they aren’t prepared to rule out congestion pricing as an option.

“Rush-hour ‘tolls’ imposed on I-5 for congestion pricing also could bring new capacity, by providing an incentive for folks to shift their drive time,” they write. “That will slow the need for freeway expansions, while raising money for other road projects.” And for local residents, “the choice one day may be between paying a toll or giving up something even more valuable—hours upon hours of their time.”

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