“We don’t want it [pricing] as a poison pill for the entire project. We want to be at the table with them [ODOT] as the process happens.”
— Matt Grumm, senior policy advisory for Commissioner Dan Saltzman
Just three months ago Portland City Commissioner Dan Saltzman was seen as a bulwark against the I-5 Rose Quarter project. Since then he has completely backed away from his insistence that congestion pricing be implemented before any lanes are added to the freeway.
The State of Oregon and the City of Portland are itching to spend $450 million to add lanes to I-5 and make changes to surface streets around the Rose Quarter. The project faces staunch opposition. Many of the critics think widening a central city freeway in 2017 is a bad idea and before doing so, it makes sense to implement congestion pricing. If people have to pay to use the freeway, the thinking goes, perhaps demand will decrease so much that current traffic problems will disappear and we’ll save millions of dollars.
On September 1st, Saltzman agreed with them. Three months later, not so much.
Saltzman’s initial statement on this issue was clear. He wanted to, “Include congestion/value pricing before the project breaks ground to ensure maximum congestion relief and overall environmental benefits.” That statement was heralded by transportation reform advocates and especially the group No More Freeways PDX. It put Saltzman on the other side of the Oregon Department of Transportation who has made it clear they don’t feel this section of I-5 is the right place to try congestion pricing.
Fast forward to October 18th when the project came up at a City Council work session and it was clear Saltzman was beginning to sing a different tune. We noted how his language had changed from wanting congestion pricing “before the project breaks ground” to “prior to the opening” of the project. Saltzman said he didn’t want to see the entire I-5 Rose Quarter project “fall by the wayside” because of an insistence on congestion pricing. Saltzman, Mayor Ted Wheeler, and high-level PBOT planning staff all agreed that they want congestion pricing; but no one was willing to draw a line in the sand around this particular project.
This Thursday (11/30), Saltzman plans to introduce a resolution (PDF) at City Council that will further codify Portland’s strategy for congestion pricing. The resolution doesn’t even mention the Rose Quarter and it makes no point at all about timing.
Here’s the language:
“Direct the Portland Bureau of Transportation to work with the Oregon Department of Transportation to implement the Oregon State Legislature’s “value pricing” on I-5 and I-205; and to work with the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability to research and evaluate best practices for congestion pricing strategies”
This change in tune from Saltzman hasn’t gone unnoticed by the No More Freeways PDX group. They’ve issued an action alert and are urging people to show up on Thursday to support an amendment that would require congestion pricing before the project moves forward.
Unfortunately, the resolution before Portland City Council this Thursday, 11/30 includes no reference to ODOT's proposed freeway expansion of I-5 (or the murmurs of I-205, either)
— as seen in the new york times (@nomorefreeways) November 27, 2017
In an interview today, Saltzman’s Senior Policy Director Matt Grumm said their shifting stance is a result of learning more about the I-5 Rose Quarter project. Grumm said Saltzman fully supports the project in large part because of how it will invest in surface street, non-freeway improvements. “We want this project to happen. We have no problem with adding two lanes and shoulders for a quarter-mile if they add the [freeway] caps and restitch together the neighborhood above,” he said. “It’s a good project that we need to support.”
Grumm admitted their initial statement about pricing seemed, “A little too aggressive.” “We don’t want it [pricing] as a poison pill for the entire project,” he added. “We want to be at the table with them [ODOT] as the process happens.” In addition to giving ODOT the “political backing of the largest city in the state,” Grumm said the council resolution is meant to spark local planning and policy work to make congestion pricing throughout our system more of a standard procedure in the near future.
When asked about the idea that pricing traffic through the Rose Quarter before adding any new lanes might save millions of dollars and negate the need for additional lanes altogether, Grumm said Saltzman just doesn’t see it that way. “Congestion pricing would help minimize congestion, but that doesn’t minimize the need for a shoulder.” Grumm added that he feels not having a place to pull a car over for breakdowns on a freeway is “ridiculous.”
This project has become a Rorschach test. To Saltzman and others who support the project, it’s a benign operational improvement to the freeway with much-needed improvements to surface streets as the cherry on top. Those who oppose it see something far more ominous: a mega-freeway project we can’t afford that will make driving even more popular and convenient. As always, the truth is likely somewhere in the middle.
➤ I5RoseQuarter.org — ODOT project page
➤ ODOT Portland Region Value Pricing Committee (meets next on December 7th).
➤ Should Portland try congestion pricing? It might be able to avoid a $450 Million dollar mega freeway expansion – Sightline, 11/28/17
➤ Watch a brief interview about congestion pricing with the Director of the City of Stockholm Transportation Department Jonas Eliasson — Streetfilms, 11/28/17
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