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Council session reveals City’s commitment to I-5 congestion pricing

Posted by on October 25th, 2017 at 11:35 am

I-5 north of Weidler overpass.
(Photo: J. Maus/BikePortland)

“I’m fully cognizant of the fact that [congestion pricing] may not happen before this project and I certainly don’t want to see this project fall by the wayside because of that.”
— Dan Saltzman, City Commissioner

As the Oregon Department of Transportation tries their best to move forward with a project to widen Interstate 5 through the Rose Quarter, there remains broad support from experts, activists, insiders — and even politicians — that charging a toll to drive on the freeway is the most sensible way to respond to congestion concerns.

But until last week it had been all talk and posturing. That was before City Commissioner Dan Saltzman (who oversees the Portland Bureau of Transportation) drafted an amendment to an action item on the project in the Central City 2035 Plan. At their October 18th work session on the plan, Portland City Council agreed with Saltzman on an idea we first reported on back in September: That ODOT must implement congestion pricing on I-5.

But the devil is in the details. When would the tolls start? Would they be legal? How committed is the City of Portland to congestion pricing on I-5? Are they willing to risk the entire project if it doesn’t happen?

Saltzman’s amendment (a stronger version of an existing action item for the project) was seconded during the work session but still isn’t an official part of the CC2035 plan. PBOT will now spend six weeks refining the idea before it comes back to council on November 30th.

Here’s the language of the amendment that was supported by council last week (notice the changes from the previous version):

Words matter here. Notice that Saltzman’s language calls for the implementation of congestion pricing “… prior to the opening of this project.” That’s different than the language his office gave us on September 1st when he wanted to, “Include congestion/value pricing before the project breaks ground.”

There’s a big difference between doing something before a shovel hits the dirt and doing it before the ribbon is cut.

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“This [action item on congestion pricing] is what you want to see happen. It doesn’t mean that the project can’t happen if we don’t meet that action.”
— Art Pearce, PBOT

Mayor Ted Wheeler had some questions for PBOT staff at the work session last week. “I support congestion pricing and I support Commissioner Saltzman’s efforts. One possible hitch in all this: Who gets to decide that? Do we control that? Does the state control that? Or are we beholden to the federal government?”

“A little bit of all of those things,” replied PBOT Policy, Planning and Projects Group Manager Art Pearce. “The state needs to apply to the federal government for approval, and that’s what the legislature directed ODOT to do… to undertake a study in order to apply for approval to implement the program.”

Then Wheeler asked what would happen if the feds said “no” to congestion pricing. “I would hate to see all of the other aspects of this project go by the wayside and the funds returned to the state so they could use it to expand I-205 if the federal government doesn’t give us what we need right now,” he replied to Pearce. “I’m somewhat hesitant to throw down a gauntlet when I don’t know who’s picking it up on the other side.”

Then Pearce said something that should give pricing advocates pause. In describing Saltzman’s stronger language for the congestion pricing action item, he said, “It’s saying, this is what you want to see happen. It doesn’t mean that the project can’t happen if we don’t meet that action.”

With a worried look on his face, as if he realized how Pearce’s comments might be heard as being too weak on the city’s congestion pricing demands and wanted to make sure something stronger was on the record, Wheeler spoke directly to Pearce, “I want to clariy: Is that Commissioner Saltzman’s intent? Because I’m not sure you got that right.”

“Our intention is to see that [congestion pricing] happen,” Pearce replied.

Then Saltzman himself spoke up. “I want to see this happen. I think you have to push the bureaucracy in order to make something like this happen because it is a new concept, at least on the west coast. But I’m fully cognizant of the fact that it may not happen before this project and I certainly don’t want to see this project fall by the wayside because of that.”

And with that, Wheeler said, “Then you have me standing shoulder-to-shoulder with you on this. This is obviously an important project for the state. An important project for the City of Portland. I believe it has the opportunity to be transformational for this part of our city.”

Keep in mind that PBOT is a very strong partner with ODOT in support of the I-5 Rose Quarter Project — new freeways lanes and all. They’ll have to walk a fine line between demands for congestion pricing and a state agency that doesn’t seem to want it on the I-5 project.

At a major public hearing on the project back in September, an ODOT staffer threw cold water on congestion pricing by suggesting it would unfairly hurt low-income people. And in a story reported by Oregon Public Broadcasting on October 13th, ODOT Assistant Director Travis Brouwer “raised doubt about whether it makes sense to even try to impose tolls in the Rose Quarter.” Brouwer told OPB’s Jeff Mapes that, “It’s not clear that it is one [section of freeway] that would lend itself real well to congestion pricing.”

With council support for congestion pricing firmed up, PBOT’s Pearce told Mayor Wheeler and the commissioners that, “Our intention is to bring a much clearer point to the congestion pricing conversation about six weeks from now.”

Stay tuned.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org

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RH
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RH

I’m all for congestion pricing. But I just hope it’s done in a way so that cars don’t simply jump off the highway and cut through neighborhood streets in order to bypass the toll. I can’t assume it will be put at the Interstate Bridge.

Steve
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Steve

As a North Portland resident I am a bit concerned that people may hop off to avoid tolls but a toll implemented immediately south of the Interstate bridge and south of the Glen Jackson Bridge south bound and south of the I5/I205 junction northbound seem like a great places to start.

rick
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rick

Get rid of the I-5 widening project.

Travis
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Travis

Tolls are typically axle based. I could very much see freight leading the desire for congestion pricing to begin and end after the Marine Drive / Rivergate exits, further encouraging cars and trucks thru North Portland. This would also allow WA to access Jantzen Beach without a fee.

I’m all for drivers paying. But tolls won’t solve the growing issue Portland has with too many cars and trucks on neighborhood streets and minor collectors — the street we ride bikes on. Not unless trips run in the $10 per day range at least.

For comparison: Cost to drive from Orland to Miami (quickest route) is roughly $20 for a car and $60 for 5 axle truck. $50 if you’re hauling a boat trailer with two axles. Downtown Orlando to UCF (a 10 min drive without traffic) is nearly $6 round trip for two axle car.

maxD
Guest
maxD

When this project was first pitched, it was a safety project. Then it was pointed out that it does not rank anywhere near the top for deaths/serious injury on ODT-0controlled streets in Portland. Then it was a congestion relief project, but it was soon conceded that that induced demand would negate any small gains. Then it was a restorative justice/re-connecting the grid. But this project removes the valuable connection along Flint, and creates new, less useful and less accessible routes. It also adds a few lids that the project needs for construction staging and it will re-purpose into “openspace”. The problem is that these will not support buildings, and they will not support vegetation. So imagine 3 blocks of Pioneer Courthouse Square except surrounded by 3-4 lane roads and perched over a highway with constant, loud noise and without any major commercial or civic amenity to activate it. In short, the project is trying to sell these leftover concrete lids as new urban space, but it is unusable and unneeded, low-quality space that will be more of a detriment than an amenity. So what is this project good for? It will reduce low-speed crashes and improve traffic flow. It is a definite improvement in convenience. However, I fail to see why Wheeler would say “This is obviously an important project for the state. An important project for the City of Portland. I believe it has the opportunity to be transformational for this part of our city.” How is it important? How will it be transformational? Can you justify spending over a half a billion dollars here?

jonno
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jonno

As I move around N/NE Portland at peak hours, it seems to me that I-5 is not the only congested road. What we need is a fee to enter the congested area at all, similar to what London does in their central city – if you are anywhere within the area, you pay the fee. I don’t know how they technically achieve that, but that’s my understanding of the approach. Adding a fee to use just I-5 will displace traffic to Interstate, Williams, MLK and all the narrow neighborhood streets that aren’t diverted, unless the toll covers the whole area.

That, or just toll the interstate bridge southbound in the morning, and northbound in the evening. Clark County is what’s driving the peak hour congestion – right? Seems that’s the elephant in the room.

This whole project feels like a bigger boondoggle every time I hear about it.

B. Carfree
Guest
B. Carfree

The only non-negative thing about this entire project is the prospect of finally implementing a toll/congestion pricing in Oregon. I understand that the fee will be set too low to accomplish anything and that the next step will be to bring it up high enough to make the little darlings squeal a bit. Now hearing that the congestion pricing is still on the chopping block is depressing, but not unexpected.

Bill Stites
Subscriber

Congestion pricing is necessary.

soren
Guest
soren

The congestion pricing provision in HB2017 has nothing to do with this project so let’s not get distracted by Saltzman and Wheeler’s transparent attempts to link it to this boondoggle.

Steve B.
Guest
Steve B.

Well said!!

wsbob
Guest
wsbob

How exactly do people, from the general public, ODOT, PBOT, etc that do, figure that congestion pricing is going to work to relieve congestion on the section of I-5 adjacent to the Rose Quarter?

This in an interstate highway, originating outside of Portland, passing through and departing from Portland. Is some way being figured out to have congestion pricing reduce congestion just on the section of the highway to be reconfigured as part of the Rose Quarter Project, or is the target area of the highway to be longer in length?

Congestion pricing focused on reducing congestion on this section of I-5, doesn’t sound like it has a strong chance of working, if there is no good alternative mode of travel to meet the peoples’ travel needs. So far, the idea for congestion pricing as a condition of moving forward with the I-5 RQ project, sounds like empty lip service.