Spicy exchanges with lawmakers portend challenges for ODOT toll program

January 17th meeting of Joint Committee on Transportation.
L to R: ODOT Urban Mobility Office Director Brendan Finn, Sen. Lew Frederick, Rep. Khanh Pham, Rep. Boshart-Davis, ODOT Director Kris Strickler.

“Why didn’t you look at public transit investments for congestion relief?”

– Khanh Pham, Oregon House

I used to think the I-5 freeway expansion projects at the Rose Quarter and the Interstate Bridge were the toughest things the Oregon Department of Transportation could ever try to pull off; but that was before I fully understood the massive headwinds they face on tolling. For ODOT, starting up a toll program will make trying to widen a freeway in Portland’s central city seem like a walk in the park.

Tolling is full of thorns matter how you try to hold it. Many people fear diverted traffic will exacerbate already dangerous and clogged surface streets, some are concerned a lack of options to driving will create captives to the fees, others don’t trust ODOT’s motives or their planned uses of the revenue, and some people simply just don’t like the idea of being charged more to drive.  Behind each one of these serious detractions are upstart activist groups ready to pounce.

With the start of the 2023 legislative session last week, ODOT leaders now have another powerful slate of skeptics and scrutinizers: Oregon lawmakers. ODOT is facing hard questions and skepticism about tolls from both sides of the political aisle.

At the first two meetings of the Joint Committee on Transportation in the Oregon legislature last week we learned how key lawmakers feel and how high the stakes are for a program that hopes to begin charging tolls for driving trips for the first time ever by the end of next year.

At their first meeting of the session on Tuesday, January 17th, the committee heard a presentation on ODOT’s toll program. As ODOT Urban Mobility Office Director Brendan Finn went through his slides, State Rep Khanh Pham asked him to stop on the one labeled, “Congestion + Pollution.”

ODOT slide shown at the meeting.

“I assume the assumption behind this is that tolling will help fund the freeway expansions which will reduce the congestion,” Rep. Pham said. “I’m thinking about what we could do to get people out of their cars by investing in public transit along those corridors. And what a billion dollars could do for that. Why didn’t you look at public transit investments for congestion relief?”

Finn replied that in addition to freeway expansion funding, the legislature set aside money for transit in the landmark House Bill 2017 package passed in 2017. He didn’t mention any dollar amounts, but that funding is based on a state payroll tax that has generated about $60 million per year for transit improvements statewide — a drop in the bucket compared to what the state spends on highway projects.

Then Co-Chair Rep. Susan McClain, one of the main supporters of HB 2017, interjected to back up ODOT. She added that the bill was “multimodal” because it “did something” for transit, Safe Routes to School, and so on. She’s right. It did “something.” But this framing overlooks the huge imbalance of spending and belies the fact that it was a “highway bill” with its vast majority spent on freeway and highway projects.

“I’ll be very kind to you on this — ODOT has not necessarily got the greatest amount of trust.”

– Lew Frederick, Oregon Senate

Senator Lew Frederick, who represents north Portland neighborhoods bisected by I-5, said his chief worry is diversion of freeway traffic onto streets like Sandy, Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd, and Broadway. “The concern is that the city is going to be asked to upgrade [those streets] without any additional resources… Where are you in terms of talking with folks about how that diversion strategy will be paid for?” he asked.

When Brendan Finn from the Urban Mobility Office said ODOT is working to model these impacts with the City of Portland and that the state will ultimately pay for those mitigation projects, Sen. Frederick replied, “I appreciate that. But I’ve got to tell you some of the people that I’ve heard concerned about it are the folks in those very cities and city governments who are saying, ‘We don’t know what’s going on with this exactly. We’ve been given vague assurances.'”

“And they,” Frederick continued. “And I’ll be very kind to you on this — ODOT has not necessarily got the greatest amount of trust and the idea that you’re going to do something about it, and that [cities] will be involved is not necessarily enough. I think you need to be much more direct and specific about how you’re handling this situation.”

(Later in the meeting Sen. Brian Boquist underscored in stark terms the public perception problem ODOT faces: “You’ve got a communications problem you’ve got to fix. It’s just that simple. You’ve got to fix it if you want to go forward.”)

At that point Director Strickler jumped in. Strickler has already begun to manage expectations and set his own narrative about diversion and who will be responsible for it. “It’s important that we identify what the true impact of the toll is,” he said at one point in the meeting. “As opposed to just kind of a desired wish list associated with all the other things that we have to do in an area.” He told Sen. Frederick that we have diversion from traffic on the freeway now and it’s difficult to understand what exactly causes it. Regardless of its source, Strickler assured the senator that the NEPA process for the toll program will force ODOT to pay for any negative impacts tolling is expected to have on surrounding streets.

“As we go through that process, I am asking for a little bit of a trust.”

– Kris Strickler, ODOT

Strickler also said that ODOT doesn’t know what the diversion impacts might be because they haven’t completed an analysis of it yet. “I’ll be honest with you, we don’t have firm answers to say, ‘These 12 intersections will be mitigated,’ because we’re still trying to evaluate the impacts of each of those. But as we go through that process, I am asking for a little bit of a trust.”

(This “It’s still too early, just trust us,” stance from ODOT sounds similar to the one they gave elected officials on Metro Council in 2020 in order to secure their support for $129 million in funding for the I-5 Rose Quarter project.)

Sen. Frederick still seemed unsatisfied. “Here’s the issue,” he said, sharply. “You don’t let people know soon enough. You don’t let people know often enough… in order to try to at least begin to break through that trust issue because people make up their own myths if they if they’re not given enough information.”

House Rep Khanh Pham added to Frederick’s points by asking ODOT for a specific estimate of total revenues each city will receive to mitigate toll program impacts to low-income households, public transit providers, and local governments to pay for street upgrades.

ODOT Director Strickler told Rep. Pham, “That’s actually not the way that the process is working… We don’t have those numbers yet.” Strickler said the FHWA (via the NEPA process) will tell ODOT what (if any) the negative impacts are and then they will be directed to fund mitigation of those impacts. But he also warned that all tolling revenue will be part of the State Highway Fund so it will come with strings attached (as in, it cannot be used to fund transit or other “non-highway” projects as per Oregon’s constitution).

“You’re also saying there’s restrictions to what you can do, so some of [those mitigations] would be unfunded…”

Unfortunately this exchange between Director Strickler and Rep. Pham was cut short because Rep. McLain interjected for a second time. “Okay, so this is a really important area. And it again, is is not done, the conversation is continuing on,” she said.

After getting grilled from Democrats Frederick and Pham, next up was Republic Rep. Shelly Boshart Davis. She thinks tolls are social engineering. “I hear a lot about changing behavior and getting people out of cars. You say we’re giving people options, I hear we’re taking away choices,” she said. “I think that is cause for concern. I think that that needs to be recognized that we’re making choices for other people… my constituents hate it when the state tells them what to do,” Boshart-Davis continued, perhaps not realizing that the current system that allows driving to remain so cheap and convenient also takes away choices of many people.

Keep in mind, all of this happened at just the first Joint Transportation Committee meeting of the session! And just two days later, ODOT was grilled again about their toll plans and how they will impact low-income Oregonians.

It’s going to be a very bumpy ride for ODOT. Wait until you learn how leveraged they are because of project cost increases and their desperate need for funding several freeway megaprojects they are determined to get done no matter the cost. Stay tuned!

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Boyrd
Boyrd
3 days ago

All of these lawmakers want to have their cake and eat it, too. They approved multi billion dollar freeway capacity enhancement projects, such as the Rose quarter and Abernathy bridge, but they only earmarked enough money to cover some of the cost. There isn’t enough gas tax revenue or federal matching funds to cover the rest. The projects will be financed by selling bonds. The tolls are the funding source that would pay back the bonds. If you don’t toll, Oregon taxpayers are going to be paying them off through higher taxes and reduced government services for decades. Do you want subsidized affordable housing, more social services, drug treatment, and support for the unhoused? Sorry, all the money is going into freeway projects. Your taxes are going to go up and your benefits are going to go down. But there’s no alternative, right? We have to make those freeways wider. Otherwise something bad might happen.

Watts
Watts
2 days ago
Reply to  Boyrd

If you don’t toll, Oregon taxpayers are going to be paying them off through higher taxes and reduced government services for decades. 

This could always change of course, but Oregon doesn’t currently pay for roads (or road bonds) with general fund money. It’s mostly gas tax, vehicle fees, and federal highway dollars. So repaying highway bonds is unlikely to take money from, say, schools or housing.

Boyrd
Boyrd
2 days ago
Reply to  Watts

Tolling was always integral and explicitly stated as the financing strategy of hb2017 (along with gas tax funds). If the tolling is dropped and the rest of the projects move forward, there will be a hole in the budget of the hb2017 projects. The state legislature will have to fill that hole somehow. If they take additional money from gas tax funds, that will result in other deferred projects and maintenance elsewhere. And with an unfunded multi billion dollar I-5 project coming up in the not too distant future, the budget hole will only continue to grow. If we fulfill all of odot’s freeway project goals over the next couple of decades, new revenue will be needed. The current gas tax and federal matching funds are not enough.

Watts
Watts
2 days ago
Reply to  Boyrd

I was addressing the concern that we would take money from housing and other programs to pay for road projects, a great which I believe is completely unfounded.

If we run short of highway funds, it is most likely that we will increase our backlog of deferred maintenance or eliminate some future projects. I don’t see any scenario where lawmakers would take money from schools or public health and apply it to expanding a highway exchange.

robert wallis
robert wallis
2 days ago
Reply to  Boyrd

The “wacky widening” of roads began about 100 years ago to handle population growth. Population growth in the USA has flat lined. No matter how one feels about cars, bikes, walking, transit, social justice, etc., it makes absolutely no sense to add highway capacity. Tolls are all about paying for a future that will never happen. Widening of roads to accommodate more cars and more people is totally absurd. We need revenue for transit, walking, and biking, none of which tolls will help with.

Charley
Charley
3 days ago

1. Social engineering is such a blinkered way of describing tolls. *Every* choice we make through our government creates a reaction in society. People react to market forces, legal forces, etc. No law is neutral.

2. After many years of bike/transit commuting straight downtown and back, the pandemic eliminated my entertainment industry job and I worked as a carpenter. I worked on projects in all three Metro counties: some for a few days, some for a few months. Commuting by bike was clearly not an option and renting/buying a house near every individual project would just be a joke. There is no transportation alternative for this kind of work.

During a year of 30 minute truck commutes across the entire metro area, I began noticing how much of the traffic was contractor trucks. It may be that contractors could react to tolling by changing their pay structure or limiting their regional coverage. But for a lot of us, we need the income, and we take a job no matter the drive.

Anyway, that way of life is radically different from that of the work-from-home crowd, or even the many people who just work at an office building in the center of town for years on end.

The experience gave me a lot more sympathy for those who oppose tolling. It will be hard to sell tolling to people whose worksite shifts across the metro region regularly, who work long days already, and who needs to transport tools and materials constantly.

Zachary
Zachary
1 day ago
Reply to  Charley

I’ve heard this argument many times and think I understand this perspective. I’m curious what the data say. Of the hundreds of thousands of regional daily trips, how many are contractors going to job sites? A few thousand? Tens of thousands? In other words: how big is the scale of this experience?

There’s also this: contractors pay for trips in multiple ways. There’s the cost of the vehicle. There’s the (potential) cost of tolling. And there is their time. If done correctly, tolling could help mitigate congestion and the few bucks it costs to pay tolls every day may be more than paid for by reducing lost time on the job site while sitting in congestion.

Lastly, there are all sorts of ancillary costs baked into contracting bids. I see no reason increased costs for transportation—if indeed that is what happens (ie what I suggested above about saved time turns out not to occur)—shouldn’t simply be added to the overall price for a contracting job.

Adam
Adam
3 days ago

No one trusts ODOT because its leaders and spokespeople speak and behave like used car salesmen. They’re hacks who use obvious cloak and dagger tricks to placate and obfuscate and muddle and tire out their “customers,” until they buy the lemon as is, with that TruCoat included.

ODOT is supposed to be managed and staffed by professional civil servants who do the bidding of elected officials, like Governor Kotek, and the Legislative Assembly. These officials need to be telling ODOT what the vision for tolling is and crafting laws based on that vision. If that vision is that tolling can only be used to fund new freeways and the maintenance of existing freeways, so be it, if the voters don’t mind. But treating ODOT like it’s some thinktank of innovative transportation policies and multi-modal solutions is foolhardy. ODOT builds roads for cars and trucks. That’s it. They’re not really qualified to do anything else. They can’t even manage a highway construction budget consistently well.

Asking this ODOT to get back to you with reliable data and analysis of anything other than how many lanes they think the ideal freeway ought to have, is like asking Jerry Lundegaard to speak with his manager about removing that TruCoat charge from the price of the car.

Lawmakers need to develop their tolling vision and strategy on their own and hope ODOT can follow their directions whenever the time comes to implement the tolling plan.

pigs
pigs
2 days ago

+1

Watts
Watts
2 days ago
Reply to  Adam

ODOT is supposed to be managed and staffed by professional civil servants who do the bidding of elected officials

And it is. If you want to change the projects ODOT works on, you need to change what the politicians are telling ODOT to do. As it stands, I think it’s very likely that the current administration is going to fold before tolling comes to pass because the concept does not have much public support.

Asking that politicians develop independent expertise in the transportation field such that they would no longer need to rely on ODOT to be their experts is a pretty tall ask, especially since Oregon has a pretty long list of crises and failing systems and self-inflicted wounds that need attention far more than a tolling plan does.

Adam
Adam
2 days ago
Reply to  Watts

Tolling expertise can found anywhere outside Oregon. The technology is used worldwide and functions well enough for whatever our needs will be here. Any ideas around tolling ODOT can bring to the table will not come from experience and are not needed. If lawmakers are serious about tolling, they will be consulting any number of resources outside Oregon who have already done it.

Politicians still ultimately need to call the shots on where the tolls will be placed and how much drivers will be charged, ODOT can’t make that call.
And if the public is so sour on tolling, politicians don’t want to touch it, c’est la vie.

The tradeoff there is some group of politicians down the line is still going to have come up with a funding mechanism to answer the perennial moaning about congestion and find a way to maintain what’s already built. Freeway users will eventually have to pay more one way or the other, either in the form of higher DMV fees, or gas taxes, a mileage tax, or tolls, or just more time wasted participating in daily rush hour traffic with shorter lifespans due to frequent spikes in blood pressure.

dwk
dwk
2 days ago
Reply to  Adam

ODOT can’t or won’t even clean the trash off the freeways they run now.
The underpass on 26 eastbound to I 405 north has been a garbage dump homeless camp for 3 years.
Thousands of people drive by daily to see their tax dollars not used to pick simple trash and ODOT apparently could care less.
They must want the public to view the incompetence.

Adam
Adam
2 days ago
Reply to  dwk

Right? Like I said, used car salesmen. “Sign this premium warranty package, and we’ll get those holes in the trunk door patched up nicely.”

robert wallis
robert wallis
2 days ago
Reply to  Adam

I agree with completely with your last three paragraphs, but not the first. The criticism you lay on ODOT staff should be directed at the bureaucracy that dictates their actions. That bureaucracy happens to be one of the most rigid bureaucracies in the State. It is not going to change soon, which is exactly why your last paragraph is right on.

RobW
RobW
1 day ago

This is a good article other media outlets are not covering in depth. As Sen. Frederick says, people are forming opinions without data. So Bike Portland can, and the other media outlets should, be providing data in every single article about congestion and construction tolling. Every single article. Repeatedly.

Sadly, I have given up on OPB, the Oregonian, WW, etc. journalism to inform public understanding.

1 Fuel and weight-mile taxes on trucks form the bulk of ODOT funding. What %?

2 Under the constitutional amendment 1980 Measure 1, those taxes and road use fees like tolls cannot be spent on public transit, bicycles, and peds. There are also federal rules on spending tolls on federal highways.

3 Most of the fuel tax is collected in the Portland metro and distributed by ODOT to rural counties. What %? the State should be able to provide county by county outflows and inflows of the fuel and road taxes, the income tax and corporation taxes too.

4 In 2017, the rural legislators were organized against any transportation bill. The compromise they gained was large Portland metro projects would be paid for by tolls.

5 Oregon (unlike Washington) has a state income tax which could be used to qualify low income drivers and create discounts or rebates.

Personally, I believe people will try to evade tolls by driving on side streets. Personally, I believe neighborhoods will organize to put in stop signs and speed bumps as necessary to divert them back on highways where they belong. Personally I am sure the neighborhoods will win. And personally I believe we should not delay tolls waiting for some fictional perfect solution.

Repealing Measure 1 is what no one is addressing head on. The devil is in the details on how to spend those funds. Maybe that would be a good topic for Bike Portland?

RobW
RobW
19 hours ago

Great job, Mr Maus. I’m surprised driver and vehicle fees are that high, thanks. Vera Katz used to talk about the “colors of money.” It meant we may have a public revenue source “yellow,” but it can only be spent on “yellow” uses. Because the media does not explain it, the residents and voters don’t know it.

One tool to visualize funding flows are Sankey diagrams you may know because they are used in energy policy. For example https://flowcharts.llnl.gov/.

I would ask ODOT to report their funding flows in that format. Tableau, which is a common cloud graphing, tool can do it. I have never seen it in any City, County, or State budget presentation.

Keep up the good work on BikePortland!

Watts
Watts
3 days ago

“You say we’re giving people options, I hear we’re taking away choices,.. my constituents hate it when the state tells them what to do,” Boshart-Davis continued, perhaps not realizing that the current system that allows driving to remain so cheap and convenient also takes away choices of many people.

Or perhaps realizing that the characterization of charging tolls as “giving people options” was government Newspeak.

[I support tolling the river crossing where it won’t drive diversion onto surface streets, but c’mon… no one likes it when their intelligence is insulted.]

Chris I
Chris I
3 days ago
Reply to  Watts

And “free market” supporters on the right will say that housing density zoning, setbacks, historical districts, and parking minimums are “the will of the people” rather than “social engineering”.

Watts
Watts
3 days ago
Reply to  Chris I

The difference between “will of the people” and “social engineering” is the difference between self-determination and outsiders telling people what’s good for them.

Damien
Damien
2 days ago
Reply to  Watts

More like the outsiders have successfully convinced people what’s good for them in the former case, and simply haven’t yet in the latter case.

No individual/neighborhood/town/community/etc is an island (not even actual islands), nor gets to completely self-determine.

Watts
Watts
2 days ago
Reply to  Damien

I have never argued for “complete self-determination”, but I am very committed to the principle that those most impacted by a decision should have the loudest voice in making it. I don’t know why some people find that so controversial.

Zachary
Zachary
1 day ago
Reply to  Watts

@Watts For a number of reasons I’ve been thinking about this principle quite a lot recently. I’ve found that what is often not agreed upon is the definition of who are “those most impacted by a decision.”

An obvious example is climate change. Those MOST impacted by our energy use decisions are probably people living in Saharan and Sub Saharan Africa. So, using this principle, they should have the greatest voice in many of our energy decisions. What I’ve found is that supporters of that principle often define “most impacted” as “those who live and own property geographically the closest.” Sure, that’s one definition, but not the only definition.

Chris I
Chris I
1 day ago
Reply to  Watts

Sure. For example, telling a property owner what kind of design choices they can make on a home, or how many parking spots they need to include when they put in a building. Social engineering.

 
 
3 days ago

A dislike for ODOT’s plan to toll the freeways seems to be one of the few things that people from all sides of the political spectrum can agree on.

Diversion to surface streets and the fact that tolls do not scale proportionally to income or wealth are by far my two biggest concerns with toll roads, and why I strongly oppose any implementation of tolls in Portland. I have yet to hear any satisfactory response to these problems.

Watts
Watts
3 days ago
Reply to   

Diversion to surface streets seems to be a deliberate policy choice; ODOT could make diversion impossible by putting the toll booths on the bridge itself. I personally think the choice not to do this is a poison pill for the whole concept.

The complaint that prices (for road tolls or anything/everything else) “discriminate” based on income seems to just be how money works.

FDUP
FDUP
3 days ago
Reply to  Watts

Bridges are the most logical places to toll, b/c everyone has to cross the bridge; that’s pretty much the universal consensus.

But you can toll anywhere now, no toll booths required, it’s all done either electronically or through license plate ID photo systems. (Of course the libertarians are sure to scream foul, just like they’ve done for red light and speed cameras).

Public safety or social anarchy are pretty much your two choices these days, and public safety doesn’t seem to be winning…

 
 
3 days ago
Reply to  Watts

The complaint that prices (for road tolls or anything/everything else) “discriminate” based on income seems to just be how money works.

This statement is certainly true. And like most other leftists, I think this is for the worse. I also recognize that this is the world we live in (and these are the hands we’re given?), and that we can’t just dismantle today’s society immediately. However, although we can’t change what already exists, we can avoid throwing yet another burden of prices on low-income people and making the situation even worse.

I also agree with you that tolling the bridges would be the only diversion-free way to do it. Which is why the only tolling I would support would be an income-proportional toll on the two Columbia River bridges. No tolls elsewhere, and no other price structure. The logistics of such an income-proportional toll would be almost impossible, and so I don’t see this happening.

Watts
Watts
2 days ago
Reply to   

Why make your stand over the basic concepts of money over driving across a bridge? C-TRAN is available, high quality, and subsidized.

There are so many more fundamentally important areas you could focus on, such as the fact that healthy food represents a bigger share of income for a gas station attendant than a surgeon. Safeway should probably be pricing broccoli in income fractions rather than dollars. I’d be much more likely to support you there than in ensuring driving remains cheap.

John
John
2 days ago
Reply to  Watts

This article was about bridges and tolling, not about groceries. That’s probably why they didn’t focus on that.

These tolls disproportionately affect poorer people. Yes, C-TRAN exists. So the tolls disproportionately make poorer people use a service that they clearly consider sub-par (or they’d be using it). I expect you to be A-OK with making the poors get on the bus if that gets them out of a car, but frankly that sucks. That’s not a real solution.

I think the disproportionate effect of tolls are probably marginal (although they should be significantly higher for commercial use), but that effect should at least be acknowledged honestly.

Watts
Watts
2 days ago
Reply to  John

I fully acknowledge that tolls disproportionately affect “the poors” (as you call them), as does everything that involves money. I would not support reducing the impact, because if you want to reduce driving, the impact is the entire point. Making driving more expensive (through whatever mechanism) will make it more of a luxury good. That seems unavoidable. Acknowledged.

Ironically, making commercial driving significantly more expensive would also disproportionately impact low income folks, as that cost gets passed on in the form of higher prices as a particularly regressive and stealthy sales tax. I’m ok with that, but given the rest of your post, I’m surprised that you would call for such a thing.

Chris I
Chris I
3 days ago
Reply to   

The congestion causes diversion traffic already. No one can really predict if tolling is going to make it noticeably worse or better.

Dave
Dave
2 days ago
Reply to   

True that–hard to get Brian Boquist and Lew Frederick on the same sidr of something !

dw
dw
3 days ago

Doesn’t traffic already divert to surface streets when the freeway is congested, to try and ‘beat traffic’?

pigs
pigs
3 days ago
Reply to  dw

Yeah, I can’t imagine it would have have that big of an impact. Driving on local streets is almost never faster than staying on the freeway as it currently stands.

The biggest issue I see is that all meaningful funding will go back into building more highways. As I’ve heard it described before, “it’s like using money from the cigarette tax to make cigarettes more tasty”.

 
 
3 days ago
Reply to  pigs

Driving on local streets is almost never faster than staying on the freeway as it currently stands.

I agree with this statement, but if anything I think this strengthens the point that diversion from tolling will be a significant problem. With the current status quo, there is some diversion to surface streets, but the majority of the traffic remains on the freeway since it’s both quicker and cheaper to do so.

Implement tolling, and it immediately becomes cheaper to stay on the surface streets rather than take the freeway. And that will result in a mass exodus of low-income and middle-income drivers from the now-tolled freeway, and these drivers will instead take surface streets to save money.

I see no scenario in which tolling the freeway anywhere except for the two Columbia River bridges will not result in horribly unsafe conditions for people using active transportation on parallel surface streets like MLK, 82nd, Interstate, 92nd, and similar.

FDUP
FDUP
3 days ago

Getting people on public transit requires a stick and carrot approach, you need to combine improved service with increased tolls for driving; you can’t have just one without the other.

Brad Barnhall
Brad Barnhall
2 days ago
Reply to  FDUP

Use of public transit is driven by a scarcity of affordable parking options at the destination, an inability to afford private transportation, and an inability to operate a motor vehicle (for medical or legal reasons.)

Being manipulated into it by a government who wants you to do something, and is willing to make you suffer if it will change your behavior, is not high on the list.

Boyrd
Boyrd
2 days ago
Reply to  Brad Barnhall

Use of single occupancy vehicles is driven by a publicly subsidized surplus of cheap or free vehicle storage options and subsidized roads.

People are manipulated into driving cars by deceptively hiding the cost of paying for the infrastructure.

If the fees were charged at the point of use, the way they are for public transit, rather than rolling them into the cost of fuel and other taxes, people might choose other transportation options.

Watts
Watts
2 days ago
Reply to  Boyrd

“People are manipulated into driving cars by deceptively hiding the cost of paying for the infrastructure. ”

People pay for road infrastructure every time they put gas in their tank. It’s not quite point of use, but for frequent drivers it is closer than topping up a Hop card from time to time, which could even be handled automatically. I’ve noticed that drivers tend to be very aware of the cost of filling their tank.

As others have pointed out, tolling is likely to be handled electronically, so it will not have the same visceral deterrent effect as handing over $2 every time you cross the Columbia River.

Zachary
Zachary
1 day ago
Reply to  Watts

I’d add a little reminder that the hidden costs of driving SOVs goes faaaar beyond gas and infrastructure prices: noise, climate change, particulate/emissions, heat islands, unpleasant roads cutting through towns, tire particulate runoff, etc etc etc

Brad Barnhall
Brad Barnhall
23 hours ago
Reply to  Boyrd

Use of single occupancy vehicles is driven by a publicly subsidized surplus of cheap or free vehicle storage options and subsidized roads.

You’re leaving out the fact that driving is far more comfortable than using public transit, it’s much faster than public transit, it’s way safer (in terms of sharing the train or bus with criminals), it’s far easier if you’re a parent, it is more convenient to run errands (try grocery shopping with no car), and it is just plain fun to drive for many people.

John
John
2 days ago
Reply to  Brad Barnhall

Umm, all those things are manipulated by government. This fantasy that anything about the roads isn’t completely decided by government has to die.

CDD
CDD
3 days ago

So how are those meth-zombie stolen Kia’s with no license plate going to be kindly asked to pay the tolls? And that “income proportional tolling” requires an application, and internet, and a car that actually works. Once you do that, transmission blows and you borrow auntie’s Buick. And get charged full toll again? And I’m also downloading Waze and setting it up to “no tolls” by default. I get it makes sense in Seattle (sort of) pay over the lake or take a 1h detour. But Oregon City? C’mon man! Put the tolls on the ballot, NOW!

Dave
Dave
3 days ago

“Social Engineering” – what a tired trope.

I’d argue build out of the interstate system and subsequent pattern of car-oriented land use development is an even better example of this social engineering concept. Who knew human beings were destined to be required to own, operate, maintain, register, insure an expensive depreciating asset to get to and from work or pick up a couple of items from the grocery store.

Seriously, what’s the point of even living in a proper city without amazing public transit options? Why do these suburban & rural electeds and state bureaucrats have so much influence over city and urban transportation issues?

Congestion pricing is likely the best opportunity in a generation to bring better balance to our regional transportation systems, but without real leadership (and I don’t see much), it’s gonna fail.

Jimbo
Jimbo
3 days ago
Reply to  Dave

Well said.

Looking at how ODOT is framing tolling as a way to fund freeway expansion, I am dismayed.

Everyone says “We need to reduce Vehicle Miles Travelled!” and then immediately build more parking and make decades long plans for road widening and more lanes.

Toll the freeways. Use the money on active and public transit infrastructure. Traffic will clog our side-streets – it was always was going to do this because car dependent infrastructure doesn’t scale. People will get sick of paying $8000+ a year for the privilege of risking their lives, destroying the environment, ruining their city’s financial future, and being stuck in traffic. Then will then take the MAX, bus, ride a bike, or whatever. Emergent systems be emergent like that. VMT will be reduced, and humanity will transition towards a more sustainable transportation system.

John
John
2 days ago
Reply to  Jimbo

This exactly. People will only take the side streets if the side streets are clearly designed and capable of going faster than the highway. The thing that scared me about this article was the talk about how they would deal with the increased side street traffic. It sounds like they want to go with the same brain dead solution of “somehow” increasing throughput on side streets. Like make MLK into a 45mph highway.

The only reasonable mitigation would be to decrease the speed limit on MLK (just an example street), strictly enforce with speed cameras, and forcibly divert traffic out of other side streets with barriers.

dw
dw
2 days ago
Reply to  John

I immediately imagined sidewalks and crossings being ripped out in the city to add lanes and “increase throughput” in response to diverted cars. I hope that kind of thing doesn’t happen but who knows what kind of government we’ll elect in two years.

SteveBinEugene
SteveBinEugene
3 days ago
Reply to  Dave

Quote of the week.

Lisa Caballero (Assistant Editor)
Editor
Reply to  SteveBinEugene

You mean “comment of the week.” (I’m pointing this out to tag it.)

Mike Quigley
Mike Quigley
3 days ago

Look at it this way. Tolling will cause such massive congestion on side streets, drivers will come around to accepting the tolls.

Fred
Fred
3 days ago

The big mistake that gov’ts made everywhere in the US (and in some other countries) was to build multi-billion-dollar limited-access highways and (a) not charge drivers a fee to use them, and (b) call them “freeways.”

Now we have legislators like Boshart-Davis thinking that these facilities are “free,” should be free, and will always be free, when in fact they suck up almost ALL of the available transportation funding. Any implication that drivers should pay for these facilities is equated with taking away people’s freedom (or “free-dumb,” as some have called it). The thinking is completely warped. I wish the folks at ODOT would remind everyone, endlessly, that modern roads are incredibly expensive and we need to pay for them somehow.

HJ
HJ
2 days ago
Reply to  Fred

That’s the thing. We DO pay for them. Through the taxes that are already in place. The opposition here isn’t about free vs paid, it’s about raising rates at a time when people are already struggling to put food on the table.

John
John
2 days ago
Reply to  HJ

If people can’t afford it, then we shouldn’t be talking about spending billions widening a highway. Conservatives always (pretend to) care about personal responsibility and all. Do it here.

FDUP
FDUP
2 days ago
Reply to  HJ

Trouble is, the ‘taxes already in place’ are falling short.

Tax the rich, they can afford it, and they will benefit from it even if they don’t use it personally.

Hippodamus
Hippodamus
3 days ago

Regarding all of the comments on diversion: I appreciate the concerns about areas close to the highway having diversion. My question to people with those concerns is: how do we start to move towards a more appropriate level of car use in those areas if it’s not tolling? For instance, do we need more diversion in those areas or close access to the freeway? Those areas already have too many cars moving through them in my view. We also need to balance the need for local folks to access other opportunities. If we don’t do something to begin to untangle the mess we’ve created that requires most people to use cars for most trips, we won’t ever be able to address the issues folks who live near the freeway already face. Tolling may not be perfect or enough, but it’s a start. What else do we need to do in addition to tolling to make it work?

 
 
2 days ago
Reply to  Hippodamus

how do we start to move towards a more appropriate level of car use in those areas if it’s not tolling?

Zoning changes to allow for mixed-use walkable developments, combined with heavy investments into frequent-service transit and bike infrastructure that goes places people need to go. Where will the funding come from? I don’t claim to know the answer myself, and it will probably have to come from a federal level.

FDUP
FDUP
2 days ago
Reply to   

Except that ODOT is already in the process of hijacking any federal funds available for active and public transportation for their mega highway and bridge boondoggles.

Watts
Watts
2 days ago
Reply to  Hippodamus

how do we start to move towards a more appropriate level of car use in those areas if it’s not tolling?

By raising the gas tax, or imposing a carbon tax. Tolling is much less effective since it only addresses a single facility that can often be avoided. Think of those taxes as “distributed tolling” based on miles driven anywhere.

Carrie
Carrie
3 days ago

Wait until you learn how leveraged they are because of project cost increases and their desperate need for funding several freeway megaprojects they are determined to get done no matter the cost. 

This! We’ve just had to pull the plug on our personal housing infill project because of rising costs and stagnate funding sources (wages) and are now making some system changes based on what we can afford. ODOT is finally sort of being held to some of the same financial standards of other agencies.

Ben G
Ben G
3 days ago

So the tolls go into the highway fund that will inevitably fund… more ODOT projects? How convenient.

Dave
Dave
2 days ago

I live in a part of Clark County that was very adversely affected by a project of Mr. Strickler’s. Saying that it’s hard to trust him is like saying Eddie Van Halen messed around with guitars a little bit.

jakeco
jakeco
2 days ago

“But he (ODOT Director Strickler) also warned that all tolling revenue will be part of the State Highway Fund so it will come with strings attached (as in, it cannot be used to fund transit or other “non-highway” projects as per Oregon’s constitution).”

So if the money from tolling goes to mitigation of the effects of tolling and will not help build multimodal resources to act as a carrot to cut down on necessary car/truck traffic….. is the the tolling simply a funding mechanism for ODOT?

HJ
HJ
2 days ago
Reply to  jakeco

Bingo. Comment of the week right here.
At a bare minimum if they want to implement tolling they should be required to pay for multimodal improvements on impacted surface streets. Not just for the car traffic.
If you’re already going to economically force people off the freeway you should at least make it safe and easy for them to pick an alternate mode of transit.

Brad Barnhall
Brad Barnhall
2 days ago

some people simply just don’t like the idea of being charged for something they currently use for free

Actually, we pay 58.4 cents per gallon for transportation infrastructure. It’s not free.

Boyrd
Boyrd
2 days ago
Reply to  Brad Barnhall

The total gas tax is 56.4 cents per gallon in Oregon (state plus federal). In Portland, it’s 66.4 cents. Electric vehicle owners can either pay a flat fee up front at the time of registration, or pay 1.8 cents per mile.

Regardless, the vehicle operators are not explicitly informed of the taxes they are paying at the time of sale, and other than a fuel level indicator on the dash, there is little indication at the time people are choosing to make a trip of what the cost of using the infrastructure will be.

Brad Barnhall
Brad Barnhall
23 hours ago
Reply to  Boyrd

The breakdown of taxes is, in most states, printed on a sticker affixed to every gas pump. Since we don’t really get a good look at gas pumps in Oregon, I don’t know if that is the case here, but I would bet that it is displayed somewhere at every gas station.

Doug Hecker
Doug Hecker
2 days ago

Never understood how people thought that tolling to get people off of the freeway and on to city streets was a good idea. Really wondering why this is just now being brought up. If this is truly the idea then let’s invest in more off ramps on 84 and better ones in 205. It almost seems like the politicians of old wanted cars to just sit in the freeway and off of the city streets by design. Now they want the opposite. Truly a strange place to be in.

John
John
2 days ago
Reply to  Doug Hecker

If this is truly the idea

This is absolutely not the idea. The idea is to get people to drive less often, however they make that work. The fear on the other hand is diverted traffic onto city streets, but that’s a thing to try to avoid not facilitate with more off ramps.

Doug Hecker
Doug Hecker
2 days ago
Reply to  John

I know it’s not the idea but that is what they are selling. I have trouble believing anyone from any side likes much of this. Weird.

I would count on city streets being more crowded tho. Yeah, Portland can do whatever they’d like but other cities won’t.

John
John
2 days ago
Reply to  Doug Hecker

I don’t want to get into a big long debate about this, but that is absolutely not what they’re selling. It’s not what they’re suggesting, selling, or hoping you’ll believe. That is an unwanted consequence that would actually be a strike against the proposed tolling.

I literally have no idea where you got the idea that that they’re doing tolling to get people off of the freeway and on to city streets. Unless you’ve seen that suggested somewhere. That would be amazing to me if they did, that’s the opposite of what just about everybody wants.

Watts
Watts
2 days ago
Reply to  John

“That is an unwanted consequence”

It is an unwanted consequence that could be completely avoided by tolling on the bridges themselves. This doesn’t seem to be the plan, so it is natural that people would question why.

Watts
Watts
2 days ago

I’m seeing the law of unintended consequences at play here.

Activists asked for tolling to reduce the amount of driving and hopefully convince politicians that their grand highway projects were unneeded.ODOT is repurposing those tolls to use to fund those exact projects, while claiming (somewhat accurately) that they’re just doing what the activists asked for.Ironically, the tolls may be what it takes to make the increasingly expensive highway project more palatable to lawmakers, making it more likely we’ll end up with “the big one”.

Jay Cee
Jay Cee
2 days ago

Toll at the bridges and be done with it. No surface street impacts cause there isn’t anywhere else to go

Racer X
Racer X
2 days ago

Good Point: its difficult for a DOT to take the lead on an initiative if their elected leaders are split on an action.

AND it is impossible to educate and build any level of trust in ODOT (setting aside all the other trust issues) when their administrative experience with major facility tolling is over 50 years old, so for now it is just something they “read about in a book”.

ODOT really needs to outsource this service (and discussion lead) to another DOT with practical modern experience with tolling of bridges/ tunnels, express lanes and HOT lanes. Its a lot easier to build trust if a transportation professional can tell a community leader / business contact / informed citizen that they have successfully done something somewhere similar and thus their recommendation is solid.

Got WSDOT or TXDOT etc. on contract to outsource it.

Do not keep winging it ODOT, unless you want to torpedo tolling.

https://wsdot.wa.gov/travel/roads-bridges/toll-roads-bridges-tunnels

https://www.txdot.gov/content/txdot/en/inside-txdot/division/toll-operations.html