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As debate heats up, State transpo commission will hear from public on congestion pricing

Posted by on July 10th, 2018 at 10:39 am

One of the recommend options would add tolls to I-5 through the Rose Quarter.
(Photo: Jonathan Maus)

It’s a rare chance to speak directly to the most powerful transportation policy-setting body in the State of Oregon on an issue that could have immense impact on our future.

In Portland this Thursday the Oregon Transportation Commission (OTC) will host a listening session on congestion pricing. The special event comes after six meetings and eight months of deliberations by the Portland Metro Area Value Pricing Feasibility Analysis Policy Advisory Committee (PAC). The 25-member PAC delivered its final tolling recommendation to the OTC on July 5th.

That recommendation (image below, PDF here) consists of an initial pilot program and a longer-term plan to be phased in later. Here’s how it would work: Tolls would be levied in two places; all lanes of I-5 between SW Multnomah Boulevard and the N Going/Alberta exit (exact termini would be decided later), and across the Abernethy Bridge on I-205 (known as concepts “B” and “Modified E”). When/if those are successful, the next step would be to toll all lanes of I-5 and I-205 from their intersection near Tualatin (south of Portland) to the Columbia River (concept C).

The PAC’s recommendation to the OTC.

“Tolling of existing capacity should not be used to discourage driving,”
— Marie Dodds, AAA Oregon/Idaho

(Note that both locations for the recommended pilot program are where ODOT already has nearly $600 million in freeway widening projects planned — the I-5 Rose Quarter and Abernethy Bridge replacement projects.)

The OTC will use the PAC’s recommendation and public feedback to create a proposal for the Federal Highway Administration later this year. If the FHWA approves, they’ll allow the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) to move forward with more detailed analysis and development of the program.

With the potential of pricing Oregon freeways for the first time ever, the debates over how best to do it — and more importantly, what the revenue should be used for — are just beginning to heat up.

The Street Trust, a Portland-based group that advocates for better biking, walking, and transit, is concerned about where tolling revenue will go. “As it stands it appears that ODOT intends to raise revenue for highway widening mega-projects on I-5 and I-205,” wrote PAC member and The Street Trust Advocacy Director Gerik Kransky on Twitter yesterday. “That is a dangerous policy precedent and threatens undermine the benefits of congestion pricing.”

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Option C, favored by groups like The Street Trust and the City of Portland.

The Street Trust is urging their members to testify at Thursday’s meeting. They also plan to send ODOT a petition signed by 500 people urging the agency to spend tolling revenue on projects that will making biking, walking and transit more competitive options than driving.

There’s reason for worry. While the PAC’s Charter says pricing should “encourage more efficient use of the transportation system,” and that it should help increase, “the use of other modes,” it also states that revenues should go toward, “financing freeway bottleneck relief projects.”

Not surprisingly, interest groups and agencies are lobbying the OTC in both directions.

In a letter to OTC Chair Tammy Baney, AAA, a driving advocacy group, wrote, “Tolling of existing capacity should not be used to discourage driving, change travel behavior, or generate revenue for purposes other than the necessary and beneficial improvement and maintenance of safe mobility on the tolled corridor. AAA believes that congestion pricing, when it is imposed on all road users to discourage the use of automobiles during peak traffic periods, is not an appropriate transportation policy.”

The Oregon Trucking Association only supports a pricing program if revenue is used to increase freeway capacity. “We are not in favor of congestion pricing to support other projects,” their letter states.

In his letter to the OTC, Clackamas County Commissioner (and PAC member) Paul Savas wrote that, “I find the hard line ideology of rejecting highway solutions as lacking the vision needed to serve our region.”

The City of Vancouver in Washington is already asking for an earmark, demanding that a new I-5 bridge “must be included in any discussion of bottleneck relief projects.”

Washington County is another strong voice for more freeway capacity. In their letter they encourage the OTC to, “Link tolling directly to increased freeway capacity in the region… this means targeting revenue to completing the investments in the region’s bottleneck projects in the Rose Quarter and I-205/Abernathy [sic] Bridge… It is important the people who pay the toll see benefits both in terms of better traffic flow and increased capacity.”

While The Street Trust is up against powerful voices, they are not alone. They’re signed onto letters with groups including: Verde NW, OPAL Environmental Justice, Metro, Oregon Environmental Council, TriMet, and the City of Portland. The grassroots coalition group that’s fighting the I-5 Rose Quarter project has also thrown their weight behind the idea that any money raised should not be spent on more freeway capacity.

A letter to the OTC signed by Mayor Ted Wheeler and his four city council colleagues stated they prefer Option C (toll all lanes), “because it shows greatest travel time savings and revenue generation,” and they want options B and E to be considered merely as phases to achieving it. Any revenue, they say, “must be used to ensure corridor safety and multimodal options, including transit.” And in bold type their letter adds, “Revenue from I-5 tolling should not be used to fund I-205 expansion.”

If you want your voice to be heard, sign up for a three-minute speaking slot at this Thursday’s meeting. It starts at 4:00 pm (sign-ups begin at 3:00) and will be held in the Columbia Falls Ballroom of the University Place Hotel and Conference Center at 310 SW Lincoln Street in Portland. You can also still comment online through July 20th.

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

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NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

  • Gerik July 10, 2018 at 10:51 am

    Thank you, Jonathan. I think testimony at the OTC that hits on the main points in this letter will be effective:

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    • Hello, Kitty
      Hello, Kitty July 10, 2018 at 9:14 pm

      I really wish we wouldn’t rebrand congestion tolling as “value pricing”. This is the same term the pharmaceutical industry uses to justify their huge price increases, and I see it as a highly anti-social concept. And it’s not going to fool anyone.

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      • John Lascurettes July 11, 2018 at 12:04 pm

        At the same time, calling it “congestion pricing” reminds car-heads that it’s “all about” the congestion and reinforces their belief that we should just build more lanes. Perhaps “anti-congestion pricing” would work better?

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  • Bjorn July 10, 2018 at 11:10 am

    This seems like a good time to remind anyone who wants to have roadside assistance insurance that AAA is not the only option. I use better world club, the roadside assistance packages are very similar and cost a similar amount but your money doesn’t go to Pro-Car at any cost lobbying like it does when you are a AAA customer.

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    • Matthew in PDX July 10, 2018 at 11:50 am

      We get our roadside assistance from our insurance carrier (Travelers), not that we’ve ever needed it. There are a number of insurers, as well as auto manufacturers, that include roadside assistance in their prices.

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    • dan July 10, 2018 at 12:05 pm

      Yeah, AAA seems really out of touch. I wonder if all its members really want all American cities to have LA-style 12 lane freeways filled with stop and go traffic.

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      • Dan A July 10, 2018 at 12:45 pm

        12 lanes isn’t wide enough. You need one highway for each person, in perfect maintenance, going directly from home to work. And make it ‘free’ while you’re at it.

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  • X July 10, 2018 at 11:36 am

    Building more lanes for motor vehicle travel will actually cause more delays in the short run, during the year(s) of construction, and do approximately nothing to relieve congestion in the long run. So lack of political will leads to a self imposed friction tax on car users. For me it’s a good thing because it will motivate my business to get out of cars which we’d all like to do anyway.

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    • John Lascurettes July 10, 2018 at 1:15 pm

      It will cause delays in the long run too because of induced demand. I don’t understand why the trucking lobby doesn’t get this.

      The Oregon Trucking Association only supports a pricing program if revenue is used to increase freeway capacity. “We are not in favor of congestion pricing to support other projects,” their letter states.

      If congestion pricing works as intended, then it means fewer single-occupant automobiles on the road, which means more room for the trucks. Trucking is never going to get more throughput of the digging-in-wet-sand technique of widening the freeways over and over — it’s just always going to fill in with single drivers again and again.

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      • encephalopath July 10, 2018 at 2:48 pm

        Exactly… what problem does the trucking lobby think we are trying to solve here? I’m not sure they quite get it.

        This isn’t complicated. Increase congestion pricing fee until the congestion goes away. Use the money you collect to subsidize the hell out of quality public transit for the people you priced out of the SOV commute. Those people are no longer burdened with the expense of owning and maintaining a commuting motor vehicle AND they still get to work quicker than they would have without the congestion pricing because, ta-da… the congestion is gone.

        If we’re going to talk about doing this, the way it will work has to be hammered into people’s heads over and over. Flog it. Beat that dead horse. Don’t let the motor vehicle lobby get away with saying, “Motor vehicle money has to be spent on roads because blah, blah blah.” Nope, nope, nope.. not if you want a transportation system that actually works. Increasing capacity WILL NOT solve the congestion problem.

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  • 9watts July 10, 2018 at 11:46 am

    How strong the pull of Automobility/Carhead still is.

    Why can’t we toll the highways, and then see if we still have a capacity problem?

    And for the umpteenth time, why are we proceeding here as if this had never been done before? Surely other cities and countries have faced this, done this, and drew conclusions. Let’s build on that instead of appearing to constantly be reinventing wheels.

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    • Let's Active July 10, 2018 at 2:14 pm

      Tolling all existing lanes on a freeway has not been done in the US, except for a Seattle bridge with proceeds/tolls used to pay for a new bridge there. So what Oregon would be doing here on a fairly long segment of I-5 would be innovative in the US.

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      • John Lascurettes July 10, 2018 at 4:07 pm

        All of the seven bridges in the Bay Area have (steep) tolls. 4 are Interstates Freeways, one is a U.S. Highway, two are State Freeways. It’s been that way for my entire lifetime. I have no idea what you’re talking about it not being done before.

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        • John Lascurettes July 10, 2018 at 4:16 pm

          And guess what? The fees mostly go toward maintaining the bridges, but they also go toward subsidizing other transportation:

          Golden Gate Bridge (its own transportation authority):

          All other Bay Area bridges (and they implement higher prices during congestion):

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          • Mike Mason, ODOT July 11, 2018 at 8:11 am

            I ws referring to a segment of existing freeway (not a bridge) that is priced by congestion-related variable tolls). Hasn’t been done in the US. I am in favor of it!!

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            • MTW July 11, 2018 at 8:39 am

              I guess the congestion-related variable toll aspect might be different, but tolling the entire stretch of a freeway is not new. Off the top of my head, New Jersey tolls the entire NJ turnpike and garden state parkway (and every Hudson river crossing into NY and a handful of crossings into PA.) NY, MA, PA, DE also have tolled turnpikes (Connecticut is the outlier in the North East.)

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              • Let's Active July 11, 2018 at 9:01 am

                Oh, yeah, totally agree. These turnpikes were built with tolls on all lanes. I’m only making the point that it would be an innovative way of applying variable tolls in the US. And that it’s about time it happens!

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              • Hello, Kitty
                Hello, Kitty July 11, 2018 at 11:56 am

                One difference between those systems and here is that we’re talking about tolling only the urban portions of the highway for which many alternative routes exist. There are fewer rational alternatives to toll roads for traversing the state of MA, for example.

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            • John Lascurettes July 11, 2018 at 10:34 am

              And the CalTrans operated bridges in the Bay do use congestion pricing. It’s $4 – $6 during particular hours during the week, and it’s a flat $5 all weekend. So, it’s not variable based on volume, but it is most expensive during expected peak hours. It remains to be seen if ODOT will do it during assigned hours or use volume-based metering.

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            • Hello, Kitty
              Hello, Kitty July 11, 2018 at 12:00 pm

              >>> Forty jurisdictions nationwide have adopted tolls that fluctuate depending on traffic congestion since Southern California adopted the first one in 1995… Or tolls can be left uncapped to fluctuate with changing traffic, as they do along the 10-mile stretch of I-66, where the advertised toll spiked to $40 at 8:06 a.m. Tuesday. <<<


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  • rick July 10, 2018 at 12:13 pm

    Tolls should be for I-5 bridges for Columbia and Willamette Rivers.

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    • John Lascurettes July 10, 2018 at 1:17 pm

      I think that’s harder to do because then WA gets a say so. We’re talking about the effects within Portland here. I think it’s shrewd to do it as proposed.

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      • Hello, Kitty
        Hello, Kitty July 10, 2018 at 9:19 pm

        Most of these proposals will dump huge numbers of cars into residential neighborhoods. The only proposal that avoids this is tolling at the bridges (or maybe just south of Hayden Island).

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  • SD July 10, 2018 at 1:46 pm

    All the places surrounding Portland: “Let us have subsidized, unrestricted access to drive into and through the center of the city with convenient parking and cheap gas. In return, we will demand expanded highway capacity and we will increase air pollution, disease and death in Portland, while we live where the air quality is better for us and our children. Oh yeah, forgot… no public transportation into and out of Portland because we are scared of poor people and let’s throw in a bike tax to punish people who might ask for a bike lane. And, we want Portland to pay for it.”

    Portland City Council: “Ok, but please ask ODOT to run this through their official translator first so that it sounds more happy, like ‘corridor safety’.”

    Governor Brown: “Sounds good to me, climate change is a bummer, but who would want to live in a world with all this traffic?”

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  • Carrie July 10, 2018 at 2:58 pm

    John Lascurettes
    If congestion pricing works as intended, then it means fewer single-occupant automobiles on the road, which means more room for the trucks. .

    It continues to feel like a missed opportunity for the active transportation lobbying community to partner with the freight/truck lobbying community. We are better off together the more we can remove the single-occupant private vehicles from the roads. Freight will move more ‘freely’ and cycling/walking/transit can also move people better, safer, more quickly, and more efficiently with even 30% of the current number of cars off the roads.

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    • Dan A July 10, 2018 at 3:01 pm

      I don’t know if you’ve been to the BikePortland Facebook page lately, but we can’t even get a break from motorcyclists these days. You’d think motorcycle enthusiasts would have a lot in common with other vulnerable users, but apparently some of them are not a fan of people walking & biking.

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      • dan July 10, 2018 at 5:40 pm

        Facebook? I’ve heard of that…I think

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  • Aaron Brown July 10, 2018 at 7:48 pm

    if you’re a AAA member and are discouraged by this stance, I’d encourage you to take ninety seconds to drop them a note:

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  • J_R July 10, 2018 at 7:54 pm

    The problem with tolling of short segments of I-5 and I-205, or even the full sections within the metro area, is that it will cause diversion to other routes.

    When I worked in Vancouver and commuted by bike from SE Portland, I could tell when there was a crash or other delay on I-5. Motorists diverted to my bike routes on Interstate or Williams. A toll on the north part of I-5 is guaranteed to cause diversion to Interstate, Williams and MLK. I wouldn’t really care to have additional traffic passing me as I ride my bike.

    Consider the proposed tolling of the south part of I-5. Isn’t that going to cause diversion to Barbur Blvd? That’s scary under today’s conditions, what will it be with a 20 percent increase in traffic by motorists avoiding tolls?

    My solution? Toll all roadways by increasing the gas tax. The more you drive, the more you pay. The bigger the car or truck, the more you pay. If electric vehicles get above 1 percent of the vehicle fleet, adjust their license fees to offset their use. It’s not a perfect solution, and is clearly politically unpalatable, but I think it’s better than selective tolling that will cause diversion to bike routes.

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  • Mark Nelsen July 10, 2018 at 10:25 pm

    I put the link on my FB page, I doubt most members of the public even know they can comment.

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    • Eric Porter July 11, 2018 at 11:43 am

      Mark, I went on your FB page, and I like your bit about Ape Caves. Good of you to list that public comment link, but judging by all the anti-tax, anti-transit, and anti-bike lane comments on there, it’s probably not helping.

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  • John Liu
    John Liu July 11, 2018 at 12:18 pm

    The lighter-than-expected traffic this week is an example of how much car use can be rationalized when/if drivers are motivated to do so.

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  • Aaron Brown July 12, 2018 at 1:26 am

    Here’s the No More Freeways letter:

    and here’s where you can learn more about our campaign and co-sign our letter.

    We’re explicitly calling for the OTC to direct revenue from decongestion pricing to transit instead of freeway expansion.

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  • Eric Porter July 12, 2018 at 10:21 am

    I wrote AAA, and surprisingly Marie Dodds wrote me back!

    “Thanks for your email and for taking the time to share your concerns. I’m sorry to hear that you have let your AAA membership lapse after more than 20 years.

    I did serve on ODOT’s Value Pricing Feasibility Analysis Policy Advisory Committee (PAC). At the group’s final meeting on June 25, all committee members were asked to provide recommendations on whether to move forward with value pricing. I was with the majority of the committee members in giving approval to moving forward with initial implementation of Concept B and concept E. So it’s incorrect to say that AAA is opposing congestion pricing.

    All of the committee members were encouraged to submit letters to the Oregon Transportation Committee, which I did. There were only six meetings of the PAC and a couple dozen committee members representing local governments in Oregon and Washington, the business community, highway users, equity and environmental justice interests, and public transportation and environmental advocates. So letters were seen as the way for each member to communicate points of view that weren’t addressed during the meetings.

    Transportation funding is a very complex issue. Tolling and value pricing/congestion pricing have pros and cons. By submitting a letter, we hoped to shine a light on issues that weren’t brought up during the scope of the PAC meetings. And there are many issues, including how congestion pricing will impact low income communities who are forced to move further and further away from city centers, and how diversion—people avoiding the tolled portions of the freeway because they can’t afford or don’t want to pay tolls—will impact neighborhoods surrounding the tolled areas.

    AAA does indeed support alternative modes. We agree—cars aren’t the right mode for everyone. A transportation system capable of serving the travel demands of people and the movement of goods and services is fundamental to the development and prosper­ity of communities. AAA supports a multi-modal transportation system and was one of many diverse stakeholders that worked diligently to pass a multi-modal $5.3 billion transportation funding package during the 2017 Oregon legislative session. As part of this package, the Oregon Transportation Commission established a Portland Region Value Pricing Policy Advisory Committee to guide ODOT throughout the feasibility analysis.

    It’s no secret that Oregon and the federal government have not kept up with funding for transportation infrastructure. In my letter, I stated that AAA believes that congestion pricing, when it is imposed on all road users to discourage the use of automobiles during peak traffic periods, is not an appropriate transportation policy. What that means is that congestion pricing shouldn’t be used on its own in order to reduce congestion—there have to be other ways for people to get around as part of a holistic, multi-modal transportation system.

    I think it’s also important to note that AAA Oregon/Idaho has about 800,000 members. We represent people in urban and rural areas, conservative and liberal, Democrats and Republicans, young and old. Some of our members don’t even own cars but are AAA members because of all the benefits included with membership. Just like you, many of our members bike, walk, and take mass transit, as do many of our employees. Many of our members in more rural areas don’t have other viable transportation options so tend to use the automobile as their primary mode. Like you, some of our members wouldn’t mind paying a toll if it meant less congestion. Others are opposed to tolling and are concerned with the costs.

    You suggest that AAA should branch out and offer more services to better aid bicyclists and folks using mass transit and other modes. AAA Oregon was the first AAA club in the U.S. to offer roadside assistance to bicyclists in 2009. And our AAA memberships offers roadside assistance coverage to you—not your vehicle—so that if you are riding in a carpool or sharing a ride with a friend, you can call AAA for service, even if you don’t own the car. This also applies to your kids who have AAA memberships. Let’s say your child is riding with another parent and the car breaks down. Your child can call AAA and get service for that car. We also supported funding for mass transit in the 2017 transportation funding package.

    Hope this gives a more complete picture of AAA’s views. Please don’t hesitate to contact me directly if I can answer any additional questions. You’re welcome to give me a call—I find it’s often better to be able to talk than to try to send emails back and forth. My numbers are below.

    Thanks again for having been a longtime member, and I’m very sorry you’ve decided not to renew your membership.


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    • Fred July 13, 2018 at 7:41 am

      AAA’s position makes no sense to me. Marie is saying that she voted for congestion pricing but then AAA opposes it generally? – that b/c funding for multimodal transportation is inadequate, congestion pricing is inappropriate?? In other words, the right thing to do is … nothing?

      Most people acknowledge that congestion pricing is not what people might want. I mean, who is going to want to pay more? But realistically we *have* to do something to get SOVs off the freeways and build better mass transit and alt trans options. Building 12-lane limited-access highways is not an option in Portland, and as other cities have shown, they don’t work anyway.

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  • Kristent July 13, 2018 at 12:09 pm

    The part of 205 they are looking at tolling first – specifically, Stafford to the Abernathy bridge, will only encourage more people to drive around it on Borland, Johnson, Stafford, Mountain, Schaefer and Pete’s Mountain Roads.

    Given that some of these are popular cycling routes, with no shoulders and blind corners, how soon do you think it will be before someone is killed riding on any of these roads by impatient drivers looking to bypass both congestion (they do this now) and tolls (in the future)?

    And what about the people who live adjacent to these roads? My family has had a presence on top of Pete’s Mountain for going on 60+ years now. We’ve watched it grow from family-friendly, very low-traffic roads to the crazy speedy unsafe racetrack it’s become. I used to ride my bike all over the place up there– but I won’t do it now even if you paid me many millions of dollars to do so. How much worse is it going to get?

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    • Hello, Kitty
      Hello, Kitty July 13, 2018 at 1:32 pm

      In a way, I feel ODOT wants to pick a trial strategy that will have so many ill side effects that it will be widely regarded as a failure, so they can put the idea to rest once and for all.

      Reduce the flow of vehicles coming from Vancouver, and I-5 will work much better all the way to downtown.

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  • Mark smith July 16, 2018 at 8:39 pm

    Here is the thing. The pro car folks with throw all this stuff up about “what about the po’ folk, and the disabled… and the (insert marginalized group here”. Yeah, it’s bogus. Where were they when ODOT mowed down black people’s home for pennies and to this day, haven’t paid the true value? ODOT is built on racism and marginalizing those who don’t speak up.

    Tolling needs to happen during peak hours. People need to figure out how to go another way. Introduce a cost, and people will figure out how to avoid it. Oh Washington… you failed in turning down max….the chickens have come home to roost…

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    • Hello, Kitty
      Hello, Kitty July 16, 2018 at 9:13 pm

      Concerns about the equity of tolling are not bogus, and dismissing them out of hand is not a constructive approach. Addressing them reasonably without ranting on about irrelevant institutional sins that may have been committed in the 1950s is.

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      • Mark smith July 16, 2018 at 9:36 pm

        Irrelevant sins of 1950? Wow

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        • Hello, Kitty
          Hello, Kitty July 16, 2018 at 11:17 pm

          Irrelevant to the question of congestion pricing, yes.

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  • Mark smith July 17, 2018 at 7:38 am

    Hello, Kitty
    Irrelevant to the question of congestion pricing, yes.Recommended 0

    No, it’s not. In fact, it’s completely relevant. The state stole the right of way from people of color, now it’s looking to double down on their investment and make money back with zero regard for paying back the families they stole from. See the problem? Of course you don’t. But hey, let’s keep on keeping on!

    Unless PBOT and ODOT adress the sins of the past, they won’t be able to move forward on good ideas. Namely, congestion pricing.

    I stand with the families who were stole from. You?

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    • Hello, Kitty
      Hello, Kitty July 17, 2018 at 9:41 am

      No. I don’t accept the state “stole” (any more than they or other state DOTs “stole” land for other highway projects of the era). Therefore I don’t accept that ODOT owes a debt to the people who lived there. (I do accept they screwed up a series of neighborhoods where the highway went, but that is a different matter entirely.)

      I am not resolute in my position, I can be convinced by factual evidence that what you say is actually true. If you can show me (rather than just tell me with increased volume) that ODOT did in fact steal the land for I-5, I will change my opinion on the matter. It would be even better if you can explain why, even if true, it has any connection to congestion pricing, that would be helpful.

      I am willing to be convinced that you are right. All you need to do is point me toward some documentation that your factual assertion is true.

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  • mark smith July 17, 2018 at 8:21 pm

    Understand the sins of the past and the future will come. Continue to marginalize people (in this case the school)

    No Freeway would be expanded in a rich, white neighborhood.

    And..the bombshell (very hard to find on google).

    You see, the roots of I-5 were racist. Until that wrong is righted, and families are paid and wealth is restored, this project should not move forward.



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