PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — The Oregon Department of Transportation has finished sorting the mailbag of 4,600 public comments regarding its Interstate 205 tolling plan — and the survey says: People still don’t like tolls.
In response, transportation agency officials have pledged to redouble their awareness campaign as they fine-tune the scope of the I-205 Toll Project in preparation for a federally required environmental review.
“A majority of respondents across all demographic groups and commenting methods expressed strong opposition to tolling in general or to the specifics,” according to a 114-page engagement summary report released Nov. 4. “The perceived lack of fairness of tolling I-205 was one of the top areas of concern identified.”
The tolling area will include all lanes of I-205 in both directions from Stafford Road to Oregon Route 213, with the actual installation likely near the Abernethy Bridge spanning the Willamette River between Oregon City and West Linn.
There will be no physical toll booths or stops, however. Motorists who register an account will receive a transponder that tracks trips and payments, while other drivers will receive invoices in the mail if their license plate is picked up by tolling cameras.
The tolls will use a “fixed variable” price point that charges a higher fee during peak hours — from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m., and from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., perhaps — and a lesser fee the rest of the day, said Lucinda Broussard, ODOT’s toll program director.
I-205 experiences about six and one-half hours of congestion a day; and overall traffic is now holding steady at about 90% of prepandemic levels. Net tolling revenue will be reserved for improvements in the project corridor area, per a policy directive adopted by the Oregon Transportation Commission in September of this year.
Broussard, who previously managed Washington state tolls before joining ODOT in January, said public disapproval is the “general sentiment” whenever new tolls are added, but that it evaporates soon after operations begin.
“The benefit of a reliable trip, of gaining some time back — it’s an experience you’re going to have to have,” she said in a virtual interview. “When you get those 20 minutes back, it’s the love of your life.”
While the public may not be head-over-heels quite yet, ODOT retains the mandate of state lawmakers, who in 2017 ordered the agency to pursue tolls of I-205 and I-5 as part of a massive $5.3 billion statewide transportation package. A spokesman for ODOT described the I-5 tolling effort as a separate decision with its own timeline.
“For I-5, we are initiating additional traffic and mobility analysis that will help identify where tolling would begin and end,” said ODOT spokesman Don Hamilton. “We anticipate completing this initial analysis by 2021; the results of this analysis will inform the starting timeframe and alternatives for a formal environmental review process.”
Other public comments in the engagement report focused on the still-missing funding for the I-205 Improvement Project, which would widen and earthquake-proof the Abernethy Bridge, as well as fears of toll-averse drivers fleeing to Interstate 5, Oregon Routes 43, 213 and 99E, Willamette Drive, and Stafford, Borland, Schaeffer, River and Oatfield roads.
“The areas that touch I-205, and where we might find a lot of diversion, are the places where we would put in revenue to fix those items,” Broussard said.
Oregon City officials fear the project will worsen local liveability, while West Linn officials believe their residents will be disproportionately burdened, according to the report. Gladstone officials said they do not support tolls at all.
From here, ODOT plans to finalize the six tolling alternatives, including a no-action option, and then begin in earnest the federally required National Environmental Policy Act project evaluation, with a final decision expected in 2022. Tolling would begin no sooner than 2024.