Tolls in Our Future?

Today’s Oregonian reports on the possibility of using tolls to fund new lanes on Highway 217, and reminds us that tolls are not completely foreign to Oregon. The Barlow Trail was a toll road and the Interstate Bridge was once tolled.

Metro forecasts that the 12-minutes average commute on 217 is headed to 16 minutes, but could be pared back to 12 minutes with an additional lane, or 7 minutes in an express toll lane.

Tolls have also been discussed for the Newberg/Dundee bypass, rebuilding the Sellwood Bridge and for the replacement or supplement to the Interstate Bridge.

What I find fascinating is that I hear tolls being promoted by both alternate mode advocates, because they may reduce or time-shift auto demand, and by folks like the Cascade Policy Institute, because they are market-based solutions to capacity and because they bring private equity to highway projects.

On the flip side is the possibility that the driving public just won’t stand for it. There are also economic justice arguments that some of the folks who would need to use these routes are least able to afford tolls to get to their jobs.

What do you think?


15 responses to “Tolls in Our Future?”

  1. Funny. I just posted on this as well, wondering whether or not I was going to dig into it some more; I think your post just committed me to figuring out just what I do think about this.

    As with this post, I’m better able to see the upside – and also more aware of where to go to find more on that. What I’m not yet able to figure is where to go to answer the question of whether tolls aren’t a kind of regressive tax – e.g. because everyone pays tolls at the same rate, doesn’t the burden for their use weigh more heavily on poor drivers?

  2. If we go with toll lanes as opposed to tolling the entire road, or toll a freeway but not the arterial that runs parallel to it, the whole “people can’t afford tolls” argument just goes away. As long as there is a drivable alternative route, the people who don’t want to pay tolls or can’t afford to pay tolls can simply not use the toll facility.

    As long as people can get from point A to point B by a reasonably direct route, do we need to have every possible route open at no charge?

  3. I certainly hope that Oregonians resist the temptation to build a lot of unnecessary roads with tolls. Why, we could save 4 minutes on 217 and only at a cost of $500Million…what a deal! And that number that fails to include the downstream impacts of more auto trips on congested connecting freeways and already crowded arterials, not to mention all the costs that seem to flow from auto travel…police, emergency, courts, etc.
    All the proposed roads will be filled the day they open, regardless of how the bill is paid, so its simply illusionary to think of this as a “solution” to anything. But, Hey, let’s burn oil and gas while we have it and let Mother Nature right the wrongs we have inflicted on our world in her own good time.
    Lenny Anderson, Swan Island TMA

  4. If nothing is done to expand Oregon 217, Metro officials say, the commute between U.S. 26 and Interstate 5, which averages about 12 minutes now, would average 16 minutes by 2025. Adding a non-tolled lane would shave almost four minutes off the commute. Metro staff estimate adding an express toll lane would reduce the average commute to about seven minutes.

    Does this strike anyone as not the worst problem facing PDX area traffic? If we do absolutely nothing we lose 4 minutes in 20 years?

    Personally I’m opposed to tolls except for limited circumstances and especially for existing highways unless they are equally distributed around the metro area. Basically because they are inequitable. Take 217 or the Sellwood Bridge. The state has been building higways and bridges in the metro area for 100 years and doing it mostly equitably but not always. So, for example, the east side has a first-rate loop freeway system with I-205 and the west side has a more marginal loop freeway with 217. Why should the 217 drivers pay for their improvements when the 205 drivers got theirs for free. Likewise the bridges. St. Johns got it’s bridge improvements for free, Sellwood drivers have to pay a toll for their improvements?

    The more equitable solution is to toss up tolls on all the major highways to pay for improvements everywhere. But once you do that, you’re basically doing the same thing as the gas tax but with a huge new infrustructure for fee collection that takes thousands of people and millions of dollars to build and collect. Better to just raise the gas tax and be done with it.

    The one place I can contemplate tolls is for new highways. However Portland isn’t really a city that is going to tolerate any new highways. 205 was most likely the last major new highway ever to be built in Portland.

    I say, just ramp up the gas tax to pay for necessary improvements and then provide better alternatives for people to avoid congestion. I’m not fond of congestion-pricing on existing roads. Just provide good alternatives and the problems will solve themselves.

  5. a toll on the Sellwood Bridge! We are already inquiring of our officials as to whether this can be done. Why? It would either force Clackamas County commuters to help pay for the bridge that they use and for other improvements (such as a streetcar), or it will reduce traffic and send it somewhere else. We would like to see Clackamas County put in a new Willamette River crossing, and thus significantly reduce VMT between Clackamas and Washington Counties. Some have suggested enhancing a bridge currently used for freight at the north end of LO. However, we would like to provide an exemption from the toll for Sellwood residents….much as there are now parking exemptions in certain Portland neighborhoods.

  6. On the subject of tolling bridges, I’d like to see Multnomah County put tolls on three bridges (Broadway, Hawthorne and Burnside) and use the revenue to upgrade and maintain all of the County’s Willamette River bridges. We’d have two tolled bridges (hopefully with light traffic) and motorists who wanted to avoid the tolls would still be able to use the Steel Bridge, Morrison Bridge, Ross Island Bridge or the freeway bridges.

    I understand the need to toll the Sellwood Bridge if that’s the only way to replace it, but I’d rather not see it tolled long-term, simply because there’s no convenient alternative route.

    The County should also toll the Sauvie Island bridge to pay for its upkeep, but exempt all residents and businesses on Sauvie Island from the toll.

  7. Chris,

    Thank you for raising the question.
    My impression of Commisioner Rojo’s visit to SMILE in July is that we have virtually held Multnomah County to a two lane bridge (and-I hope- a repair, not replacement). The neighborhood was resoundingly in favor of remaining at two lanes and we politely let County and METRO reps. and the Bechtel rep. know that.

    At the August meeting of SMILE we had some more discussion, whereupon the concept of a toll came up. Our SMILE president requested that I investigate this option further and since then I have made some suggetions to the Commissioner’s office, which replied that many options and alternatives will be considered and reviewd in the coming months. They mentioned that a toll would also, in this case, need ODOT approval, as state highways would be linked by the tolled route.

  8. Kent, there are plans right now at ODOT for Phase One of the Sunrise Corridor. Phase Two of the Sunrise Corridor is, at this point being designed as a parkway.

    Tolls at certain locations make sense to pay for the infrastructure we need for moving freight. All the new industrial land in Clackamas County (Sunrise Corridor) and in Springwater (Hwy 26 improvements) will need tolls. I84 and the Sunset seem to have fairly limited access which fit a toll road concept. I5 from Hwy 99W also could be made into a toll section.

    I don’t follow the logic of the express lanes on Hwy 217 since the benefit of a few minutes doesn’t justify the cost. If you are going to toll that road, make it tolled based on the time of day (congestion tolling).

    Each of the major Portland Freeways have major surface streets that parallel them (Hall, Barbur, 82nd, Beaverton/Hillsdale, MLK, and Halsey/Gilsan/Burnside/Division/Powell). McLoughlin Blvd. can’t be tolled because of the lack of a parallel surface route.

    But, we should not do a complete tolling of our freeways without adding MAX lines to most of them. That means we only need the line down to Tigard. Then its “tolls for all!”.

    Columbia River Crossing will most likely need tolls and the Feds will be forced to add tolls at I205.

    I’m unsure we can or should give special treatment to citizen from toll bridge fees (Sellwood) because you would then open yourself to this demand everywhere. Plus where would you draw the line? One mile radius of the east bridgehead? What if you lived at 1.001 mile?

    I truly hope the streetcar concept will be planned for and it ends at the Wal-Mart want to be site. Tri-Met, Metro, Portland, and the county have to buy that site!

    I think you do both revenue streams (tolls and fuel taxes). I think you reduce the income tax for the less then fifty percent medium income tax payers and boost the fuel taxes to support our infrastructure, K-12 Education, the Oregon Health Plan, and all the smaller bills. Plus we link the property tax rate to a targeted sales tax on non-essential spending (resturants, electronics, etc.) that creates a safety net. In good times, the revenue comes from the sales taxes and property taxes are reduced. But in bad times, property taxes cover for the reduced sales tax revenue. Everything should point to consumption and usage fees. Thus we reward savings and conservation.

    I know this isn’t the American Way (borrow and spend), but right now we are spending way beyond our means at the federal level and we have to create our own savings in order to create our own investments.

    Ray Whitford

  9. Ron, as my post today indicates, there are strong lobbies that want to build the bridge at four lanes. Don’t you worry that if it’s tolled, particularly with private equity participation in construction, there will be very strong pressure for four lanes to speed the revenue recovery?

  10. Chris,

    I think you have a good point. I think it might be wise to tone down the proposal of a toll until a two lane renovation is completely committed to.
    In anticipation of that dilemna, SMILE has, within the last few years, promoted the Tacoma Main Street Plan, and received MTIP funding, which has eliminated, on that street, two of the previous traffic lanes, and created islands and pedestrian crossings. The overall goal is to calm the traffic, but we realize that increasing population in North Clackamas County combined with employment opportunities in South Waterfront will continue to send traffic our way. There
    fore–I believe–other, longer range solutions will be needed. Since, in trying to improve this neighborhood (and I live two blocks from Tacoma Street) we, by an overwhelming majority, reject a four lane thoroughfare, what else is there?

    Recognizing that we are at a critical juncture in Metro. Portland infrastructure planning, I have suggested a number of times that South Metropolitan Portland needs further evaluation:

    -At SMILE we, informally, complain that Clackamas County needs a bridge somewhere halfway betweeen Sellwood Bridge and 7th Av in Ore. City. METRO’s 1999 study gave up on the idea, but I would say Oak Grove Bv. to Foothills Dr. (with a tunnel to W. end of A Ave) would be a very short and sweet answer to this problem, and would not disrupt downtown Lake Oswego. And a very picturesque, lovely, two lane bridge ( styled like the art deco bridges which are a legacy of the CCC and WPA days) would suffice. The homeowners who would experience a “loss” ( if you could call a walkable, charming way to get to LAke Oswego a “loss”) would be those with waterfront proprety nearby and those living along Oak Grove Blvd. I am not even suggesting any new or enlarged thorughfares to connect to this. The benefits would be: millions of VMT saved when people need to get from North Clackamas Co. to Washington Co. points; new business for Lake Oswego and, at the same time, a way for LO residents to shop at McLoughlin Blvd. businesses.

    -We might also forestall increased commuter traffic through Sellwood with one of our favorite tools: commuter rail. However, I don’t feel Sellwood residents are stepping up to the plate on this issue; most of them seem to hope the traffic problem will just go away, or they live in sections not affected by the traffic. But the likelihood of increasing commuter traffic could serve to force this issue; the politicians I have talked to assure me that rail is a strong posssibility.

    -Lastly, I hope that METRO’s assertion that job creation in North Clackamas County will prevent traffic woes is accurate. But it seems that very few people stay put at one job for long, but they are likely to live in one place much longer. Therefore: Anticipate commuting, and we need to take this fact of life into account.

    Now, I’ll join your other post on tolls.

  11. The so-called Southern Crossing issue is a great example of how politics and power drives transportation investments.
    If we had a “Duke” who ruled based on logic and data, the Milwaukie Expressway would be linked to 217 via a bridge and elevated roadway through Oak Grove and Lake Oswego. But the richest town in Oregon will see that this option is out of the question.
    So the “need” for more capacity get’s pushed on to Sellwood, which in its working class days could be pushed around. Times have changed, but watch out.
    Actually, it would be instructive to take a look at a recent study done for Metro’s Regional Travel Options Subcommittee (of TPAC) on potential rideshare markets. UrbanTrans, the consultant, looked at 2000 census data for orgin & destination of work trips to 16 employment areas in the region. The clustering is amazing. Only a handful of people who work in Hillsboro travel from Clark county; not many more from Clackamas county. People do get it….its worth living close to where you work.
    Go to Metro’s web site, then to Regional Travel Options…it should be posted there somewhere!
    Our focus should be on building affordable and attractive communities as close as possible to all employment areas, not on accommodating people who make the poor choice to live on one side of the region and work on the other.
    For the freight movement issue, look at Technical Memo #4 from PDOT’s Freight Master Plan…most freight traffic now and in 25 years is and will continue to be in the industrial areas of N, NW and NE Portland, and except for St. Helens Road, forecasts show little if any delay even 25 years out on arterials serving these areas. Granted this is just for Portland (not including freeways), but before we start wringing our hands about freight movement, a similar analysis needs to be done on the entire region.

    Lenny Anderson, Swan Island TMA

  12. Lenny,

    Ah, but job related commuting is only part of it. There are many reasons why a person gets in their car and decides to drive ten miles, + or -. So much of the long distance travel (beyond what could be walked or biked to) takes place at other hours. I have always held Vancouver, BC up as a model, and there even the suburban communities have compact town centers, with high rises, that at least a significant portion live in. We are a long ways from that, but should be heading there. In the meantime Oregonians will tend to use their cars.

    So now, we have many trips originating in Clackamas County, going to Wash. Co, or vice versa, that take a long detour either to Sellwood or to Oregon City and thus needlessly raise the Metro areas Vehicle Miles Traveled. Any given trip is easily increased eight to ten miles, each way, due to this lack of a southern crossing. And it makes it much harder for commercial delivery vehicles as well. If one looks at my proposal it is very unobtrusive; The tunnel under A Ave would be completely out of sight; the bridge from Oak Grove would be at the narrowest part of the river, be only two lanes, and could be very attractively designed, perhaps like the Yaquina Bay bridge, on a much smalller scale. I don’t see why pedestrians would not go for a stroll over to dinner at Lake Oswego on such a structure. I have been learning that this shifting of traffic to Sellwood and to Oregon City has been a sore spot for many years. At the same time, we don’t need the “expressway” that some advocate.

  13. Ron,
    my suggestion of an expressway from Milwaukee to Kruse Woods is something of a joke, except that 1. it would fill a gap in the freeway network and
    2. LO would never allow it to happen.
    The lesson is that most people who want more roads, want them through other people’s communities.

    re trip origin & destination…Metro’s travel data base would give us firm answers on non-work trips, but I was struck by the degree to which people do live close to where they work as of 2000. If those same “Centers” also offer other destinations…retail, entertainment, education, etc….then many non-work trips can also be kept short or “converted” to non-auto trips.
    Last, just because someone does choose to travel from one end of the region to another to get to their favorite video store or whatever, are we obligated to build them wider roads? I don’t think so. No one is forced to make these trips.
    Lenny Anderson, NE Portland

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *