Like it or not, sometime within the next five years, you'll definitely be paying a toll — no one knows how much it will cost — to pass through Portland on Interstate 5 – probably. At least for a little while.
The Oregon Legislature's new law requiring an experimental "congestion pricing" highway toll pilot project, signed into law by Gov. Ted Kulongoski in July, is taking its first baby steps this week with a presentation to Metro regional councilors on how local leaders might approach creating a road toll to cut down on highway traffic.
However, a press briefing at the Oregon Department of Transportation Tuesday highlighted the facts that so far, no one knows the cost of such a project, who will actually do the work, where a toll booth would be, how motorists' money will be collected or what such a project might actually take to develop and implement.
All that's known is that some kind of pilot project by some government entity has to happen no later than three years after it was signed into law – by July 29, 2012.
"I want to stress that we don't have the answers you want," says ODOT Communications Director Patrick Cooney. "We're at the beginning of this discussion, I can't stress that enough."
"First we have to define the intent of the policy, and from that we start talking about what the range will be," said consultant Jeffery Buxbaum of Cambridge Systematics of Massachusetts, who prepared an initial report for ODOT outlining congestion pricing options for the region, based on similar programs in Europe.
Buxbaum and ODOT officials say the pilot planning process will effectively be kicked off at this week's Metro Regional Council meeting, where councilors and officials will at least set out what they may hope to accomplish with the legislature's mandate to curb interstate traffic.
However U.S. Rep. Pete DeFazio of Eugene – a powerful member of the Congressional committee on transportation and infrastructure – has called for officials to slow down and ensure that low-income Oregonians won't be hurt by a slapdash road toll.
"I am deeply concerned that hasty implementation of the pilot will push many low-income drivers off the road, drivers with no other viable alternatives for commuting to work and school," he said in an Oct. 1 statement protesting the new law.
Any congestion pricing plan will have to be approved by several layers of federal regulation, according to ODOT.
The congestion pricing experiment is a centerpiece of the state Jobs and Transportation Act, passed by a narrow vote of the legislature last May.
The Act was touted as a jobs creation effort to revitalize Oregon by creating some 4,600 construction jobs aimed at road improvements around the state to improve driver safety, minimize traffic and improve freight transport.
House Speaker Dave Hunt praised the bipartisan group of lawmakers who passed the Act, which he said would bring in an estimated $300 million per year for transportation projects.
"This will go down as one of the top accomplishments of the 2009 legislative session. Not only is it the largest transportation package ever passed in Oregon, but it is the exact right time for our state to use its resources to get Oregonians back to work," Hunt said in a statement. "While our state has taken some shots from the global recession, ... we can come together and move Oregon forward despite these dire economic circumstances."
The Act gives city and county governments 50 percent of the estimated $300 million expected profit of the road toll, earmarking $100 million more for rail, marine, air, transit and train projects under the Connect Oregon III program.
Hunt said the Act provides $70 million per year to bond $1 billion in road renovation aimed at cutting down on traffic congestion and increasing commercial freight mobility.
Money to pay for the Act's provisions is coming from a $16 increase in car registration fees; a $22 increase on title fees; plus a jump in the cost of replacement and vanity plates; plus a six-cent increase starting in January, 2011 or after two straight quarters of economic growth.
The letter of the legislature's new law places the task of coming up with the operational details on the shoulders of Clackamas, Multnomah, and Washington counties, the City of Portland and Metro, which was set to hear its first presentation on the pilot project as The Skanner News went to press.
While the ODOT officials and the consultant were sketchy this week about many of the details regarding a possible future road toll on the interstate, they made a point of highlighting the fact that the 2009 Jobs and Transportation Act specifically forbids any of the profit from the highway toll to be spent on public transit improvements – which appears to put it in potential conflict with the goal of actually reducing road congestion.
"Congestion pricing in itself rarely works," Buxbaum said Tuesday. "It has to be done in connection with other efforts."