Where’s the Value?

SW WA citizens will find no “value” in TOLLING proposal

My letter to the editor published in the July 2nd issue of The Reflector.

A review of the past eight months of Oregon’s “Value Pricing” Policy Advisory Committee (PAC) should begin and end with the question — “where’s the value?”

Oregon’s house bill HB 2017 created the possibility of tolling, beginning with I-5 and I-205, but expanding to other state roads as well. It was introduced in the spring of 2017 and passed into law in July. Our own Regional Transportation Council (RTC) refused to engage on behalf of Southwest  Washington taxpayers. The Clark County Council was the only government body expressing strong concerns about the tolling.

Portland has the 12th worst traffic congestion in the nation. It has 35 bottlenecks. I-5 is congested over 15 ½ hours a day; I-205 congested over 12 hours a day according to the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT). The Rose Quarter has the highest accident rate in Oregon, besides being the major bottleneck for regional transportation. ODOT still hasn’t told us how their proposal will fix all these problems.

Why do we have so much traffic congestion? It’s simple. Oregon refused to build new vehicle capacity and transportation corridors for the past four decades. Yet regional population has doubled.

Oregon’s HB 2017 said the Oregon Transportation Commission (OTC) will submit a tolling proposal to the Federal Highway Administration. It was required to focus on I-5 and I-205. There was no requirement to add vehicle capacity or build anything. It was simply a mechanism to raise money. None of the $5.3 billion package of transportation projects relied on tolls.

The “Value Pricing” PAC was created by ODOT to evaluate the various issues and make a recommendation to the OTC. Two members of the OTC co-chaired the PAC. Very quickly, it became apparent the ODOT staff and their paid consultants were in charge, rather than the PAC members.

Eight “options” were introduced with surface level evaluations of impacts (positively or negatively) on traffic congestion, tolling revenue, and traffic diversion. One, Option 4, clearly had the most favorable impact on traffic congestion, with the least amount of diversion. ODOT staff rejected this option due to its “astronomical cost” which was not disclosed.

Two big questions remain. Will the OTC choose a project that actually builds new vehicle capacity, with tolling revenues, or will they simply create a new “transportation” slush fund to be divvied up later by bike and mass transit interests?

While not optimistic, I hope the five members of the OTC act on the fact that we have the 12th worse traffic congestion in the nation because they have refused to add vehicle capacity. I would hope they choose to spend the tolling dollars to add vehicle capacity.

The second question is will the federal government approve any request that does not add vehicle capacity? Oregon could be the first and only place in the nation, to request tolling on an existing, paid for, interstate highway, and add no new lanes and vehicle capacity.

Let’s hope the federal highway administration, under President Trump, says “no” to any project that does not add legitimate new vehicle capacity.