Kotek’s plan to spend toll revenue on highways under fire

PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — Portland transportation leaders are hoping to slam the brakes on legislation they say would send incipient tollbooth dollars heading in the wrong direction.

House Bill 3065 was introduced by Speaker of the House Tina Kotek as a directive for the Oregon Department of Transportation to study creating uniform standards for speed bumps — though the North Portland Democrat admitted that text was merely a placeholder at a Joint Transportation Committee meeting March 16.

With the real purpose of the legislation revealed in an amendment, the bill has hit a few bumps of its own. Namely, it would only permit tolling to pay for “construction, operation or maintenance of a highway, or for managing congestion,” according to a legislative summary.

“We made a promise to Oregonians in 2017 to improve our existing transportation system, and we need to deliver on that promise,” Kotek said. “However, I believe we’re not on a path to realize completion without accelerating and regionalizing our funding plan.”

Her amended bill would additionally broaden the pool of projects that can be funded by a $30 million yearly revenue stream carved out from the State Highway Fund by lawmakers during the passage of the $5.3 billion transportation package in 2017.

Currently, that $30 million is reserved for advancing the I-5 Rose Quarter project — but Kotek said she would let the money flow toward other metro area interstate highway projects, plus the start-up costs for nascent tolling programs and the tab for transferring control of 82nd Avenue from ODOT to Portland City Hall.

ODOT Director Kris Strickler told the committee there is little or no money set aside for other projects in the state’s Comprehensive Congestion Management and Mobility Plan, including replacement of the Boone and Abernethy bridges as well as work to be done in the Stafford area. The state has advanced some federally mandated environmental studies for the Abernethy Bridge and tolling programs, but not enough construction funding is readily available to get the job done, he said.

“(Working on) a single problem at a time … is a bit like eating an elephant one bite at a time,” Stickler said.

Other elements of the bill would authorize the state treasurer to issue tollway project revenue bonds and allow ODOT to set rules regarding civil penalties for tollbooth scofflaws.

Portland POEM — the acronym stands for the Pricing Options for Equitable Mobility, a committee run by the city’s bureaus of transportation and planning and sustainability — came out strongly against the legislation in a recent letter.

“We do not want to see an increasing reliance on highway infrastructure and instead believe we should use our existing infrastructure as efficiently as possible,” according to the two-page letter. “The primary goal of highway tolling should be managing traffic demand and using the existing system as efficiently as possible.”

Though Portland has long sought jurisdiction over the stretch of 82nd Avenue between Killingsworth and Clatsop streets, Kotek’s idea would split the cost of improving what is for now a state highway between ODOT and Portland, with the city paying 75% of the price and ODOT picking up the remaining quarter share.

The Portland Bureau of Transportation, in a press release describing 82nd Avenue as “neglected for decades” and “pothole ridden,” estimates the cost of adding pedestrian amenities and other upgrades to the Avenue of Roses at roughly $200 million.

“This proposal doesn’t feel like a partnership,” said Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who oversees PBOT. “The tolling system described in this bill dedicates all funding to major highways and it will add traffic to local streets, make local streets less safe, increase air pollution and climate emissions and further burden communities who have previously been decimated by highway projects.”

Speaking at the virtual hearing, Metro President Lynn Peterson agreed that Kotek’s strategy for spending toll revenue left little money for addressing diversion or foot-and-pedal improvements.

“Our work at Metro, in coordination with ODOT, shows that ‘pricing’ I-5 and I-205 will change the traffic patterns throughout these corridors, and the congestion will simply move from the freeway system onto local roads that are ill-equipped to manage it,” she said.

Peterson said the crystal ball was hardly cloudy, predicting that some drivers on a tolled I-5 will divert to Lombard Street and Barbur Boulevard, while I-205 motorists will head to 82nd Avenue and McLoughlin Boulevard.

In written testimony, Street Trust chief Sarah Iannarone said it was foolish for ODOT to attempt to build its way out of a traffic bottleneck.

“Right now, the agency is overburdened with outsized construction projects it doesn’t have the money to build,” she wrote. “However, tolling people to make up the shortfall is not equitable, it’s not sustainable, and it’s not smart growth.”

Not everyone is opposed to the idea of spending toll revenue on the highways from which they are collected. Hillsboro Mayor Steve Callaway said he appreciated the “flexibility” provided by the legislation, while West Linn Mayor Jules Walters said she strongly supported the plan to pay for upgrades on Interstate 205.

Walters said the estimated cost of the I-205 work increases by $15 million to 20 million for every year it’s delayed.

The Portland Tribune and Pamplin Media Group’s papers are a KOIN 6 News media partner

Zane Sparling
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