A bipartisan rebellion is breaking out along the highway as affected communities feel unheard.
By Nigel Jaquiss — Willamette Week
April 27, 2023
On the eve of a much-anticipated public hearing on the controversial $6.5 billion Interstate Bridge replacement project, three Clackamas County lawmakers have introduced a bill that would place a two-year pause on the Oregon Department of Transportation’s plans to toll drivers who use Interstate 205.
“For the five years I served as a city councilor, mayor, and now state representative, I’ve attempted to work with ODOT and provide feedback about how this plan will negatively impact my district,” said one of the chief sponsors, Rep. Jules Walters (D-West Linn).
“My constituents are already feeling the dangerous effects of traffic coming off of both I-5 and I-205 and overburdening our neighborhood streets,” Walters continued. “ODOT has not demonstrated how they plan to mitigate the costs to cities, local businesses and residents associated with that diversion.”
Walters and Reps. Courtney Neron (D-Wilsonville), Annessa Hartman (D-Gladstone) and Khanh Pham (D-Portland) and Sens. Mark Meek (D-Gladstone) and Aaron Woods (D-Wilsonville) are the chief sponsors of the new legislation, House Bill 3614. They also have 21 co-sponsors, many of them Republicans.
The bill illustrates a growing, bipartisan tide of resistance to charging motorists for the use of I-5 and I-205. In 2017, when the Legislature passed a $5 billion transportation package that included money for improvements on I-205 and I-5 at the Rose Quarter, lawmakers acknowledged that ODOT’s primary source of revenue, the gas tax, was losing ground to fuel efficiency, electrification of vehicles, and inflation. They directed ODOT to include tolling as a tool. Since then, the agency has studied both congestion pricing—variable rate tolling to encourage drivers to use roads less at peak hours—and tolling aimed at generating revenue to pay for highway projects.
What’s clear from conversations with lawmakers is that fears of the cost of tolls and, particularly along I-205, diversion of traffic to local streets are generating widespread concern.
Although ODOT has conducted extensive public outreach on both plans, there has been little public discussion of tolling this session in the Joint Committee on Transportation, which is where ODOT policy bills reside. That will begin to change today as the committee holds a public hearing on House Bill 2098 and a proposed amendment to that bill relating to the Interstate Bridge Replacement project. Oregon’s next ante for that project is supposed to be a $1 billion commitment to match the pledge of its partner, the state of Washington. One of the ways to fund construction: tolls.
In addition to unresolved issues of how to pay for a new bridge, many environmentalists want ODOT to scale back the project, which includes the replacement of numerous highway interchanges in addition to a new bridge with light rail and bicycle and pedestrian capacity.
Although HB 3614 applies only to I-205 tolling and specifically exempts I-5-related tolling from the proposed two-year moratorium, tonight’s hearing on HB 2098 is likely to provide a window into how unsettled the region’s transportation plans are.
Hanging over all the toll discussions: a proposed 2024 ballot measure that would require a vote of the people before tolls could be imposed on any highway.