As ODOT moves forward on tolling, opponents say the prices are too high

PORTLAND, Ore. (KGW) — We don’t yet have an exact “when,” but it’s looking inevitable that tolls are coming to interstates around the Portland area. The Oregon Department of Transportation is well on its way into the planning and review process.

For the uninitiated, tolling will mean that drivers need to pay to use certain bridges or roadways. Tolls are more common on the East Coast, though they’re also used in places like Seattle and Austin, Texas.

According to ODOT’s vision of the program in Portland, drivers would carry a transponder inside of their cars, which would flag tolling sensors overhead when driving through the area. No one would be stopping at a booth.

For drivers that don’t have a transponder, the system would read their license plate numbers and send a bill to the corresponding address. In Seattle, at least, it’s a lot more expensive to pay this way.

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Right now there are two tolling projects taking shape, one near Oregon City on I-205, as well as a separate one that includes I-5 and the parts of I-205 north of Oregon City.

ODOT officials say that the purpose of the tolls near Oregon City are to pay for an additional lane on the Abernethy Bridge and the 7-mile section of I-205 that narrows down to two lanes each way. The tolls will also be put toward seismic upgrades on nine bridges in the area.

There’s also a punitive reason behind the tolls. They’ll include “congestion pricing,” which means the tolls will be highest at the times of day with the most traffic in hopes of discouraging people from driving these routes — either by getting them to travel at a different time or take public transit.

The big pushback

As the word gets out, some people are shocked at the prices under discussion for these tolls. In late August, the ODOT toll policy manager spoke at a Yamhill County Board of Commissioner meeting.

“I am able to share for that 205 section we are studying $.50 to $.60 tolls for those off-peak hours and overnight,” the ODOT representative said. “And then for the peak hours it would be $2 per bridge. So $4 dollars total, right around there … $4-5. But I agree with you, that’s concerning not being able to have that information to more robustly share.”

“So, $2 per trip — so if you’re a commuter it would be four dollars a day?” asked Lindsay Berschauer, commission chair.

“Ah, actually there’s two — it would be tolled on two bridges, the Abernethy and Tualatin bridge for just that 205 section, so it would be $4 if you went all the way through it,” the ODOT rep answered. “So $8 a day, if you are travelling at those peak hours; 7 to 9 a.m., 4 to 6 p.m.”

“So that’s almost $250 a month if you are a commuter — per driver,” Berschauer said flatly.

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While it’s actually closer to $160 per month, there’s no question that this represents a considerable expense for commuters who travel at the busiest times of day, which many do — that’s why it’s busy.

Speaking to KGW on Wednesday, Berschauer said that there’s a growing effort to push back against ODOT’s tolling plans.

“They were pretty clear this is an effort to reduce congestion, but get you out of your car is essentially what they were saying — this is an effort to get folks off the road,” she said. “For most people, that’s just not possible. We have to be able to get to work and school, and like I said I’m worried about the impact to folks who are not wealthy, who cannot pay an extra $200 to $250 a month in tolling just to get to work and back.”

ODOT has said that it’s still looking at the specific tolling prices and plans to create a discount for families making up to about 200% of the federal poverty level. For a family of four, that’s an income of roughly $55,000 per year.

Dean Suhr, a resident of West Linn, is one of the leaders of a petition effort intended to give voters a say on whether tolling projects go forward. His group is gathering signatures now and needs to get 200,000 by June 2024. While that seems like a long way off, he said he’ll need to get about 10,000 each month between now and then.

“The petition requires that there is a vote of the citizens of the counties within 15 miles around where a toll is instantiated,” Suhr said. “The thinking there is that this is not just a Clackamas County issue, this is a Multnomah and this is a Washington County issue for 205 and I-5. If they were to put a toll down near the pass, near Ashland down by the Siskiyous, then those counties down there would vote on it. So it’s a regional vote that is required before any tolling is instantiated.”

Signatures on Suhr’s petition can’t be done digitally — supporters actually have to sign the paper with a pen. That said, people can download a signature sheet from the Vote Before Tolls website and send it to him, or wait until there’s a big push for signatures this coming spring and summer.

Many questions, some answers

Tolling plans on the south end for the Abernethy and Tualatin bridges are furthest along, but ODOT fully intends to collect tolls at other, to-be-determined locations along both I-5 and I-205.

For commuters who have to travel over both the Abernethy and Tualatin bridges in order to get to work and back every day — perhaps during peak hours, depending on their schedule, something that most people don’t get to choose — $8 or more can certainly seem like a bit much.

“It depends on the time of day of travel,” said Mandy Putney, tolling project manager for ODOT. “There’s only one hour of the day that we’re modeling where there’d be that higher rate, other times there’s a much lower rate. And again if folks can travel at a different time of day or take a different route or also a different mode, like by transit, there could be options there.”

In response to additional questions about the program from KGW viewers, we asked Putney for ODOT’s response. One person asked if the tolls will cause more drivers to travel through neighborhoods in order to avoid the charge. According to Putney, that’s already happening due to congestion, so their priority is to address the number of drivers on the road during peak hours.

“ODOT is working to identify toll rates that minimize congestion and rerouting to local streets, maximize travel benefits for toll payers and local street users, and generate revenue for infrastructure improvements,” Putney said. “Too low of a toll doesn’t address traffic congestion, but too high of a toll leads to negative rerouting to other streets; therefore, fewer people gain benefits.”

Putney added that they are working with local jurisdictions on solutions to the drivers who bail from the interstate to avoid tolls.

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Other viewers worried about the price for commuters who aren’t so low-income that they fall under the poverty rate identified by ODOT, but don’t make enough to afford the additional cost of tolls. Putney replied that there are no other discounts currently under consideration, but they could be recommended by rulemakers next year.

Given how concerned Portland business leaders are with the state of downtown, one viewer asked if the tolls won’t further discourage people from making the trip into the city. Putney sidestepped the topic of downtown in particular, but was adamant that the program would be a net positive.

“This is a regional toll program. Our traffic delays cost our economy $1.2 million per day,” she said. “Our traffic is hurting our economy and impacting the livability of this region. Tolls will help reduce traffic jams and provide more predictable trips to help us get to jobs, medical appointments and where we need to go.”

Not all of the viewer responses were negative or expressed anxiety about the plan. Some said that they were familiar with tolls in other parts of the U.S. and considered them a necessary evil for infrastructure upkeep.

Putney also underlined that, while ODOT will be getting a substantial sum from the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed earlier this year, those funds are earmarked for necessary projects all over the state and can’t be spent on just the Portland metro area. Thus, the tolls are needed to finish projects here.

The first tolls will appear on that section of I-205 near Oregon City and ODOT said it will start about two years from now. We’ll learn the exact prices about six months before that; late spring or early summer of 2024.

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