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Oregon toll proposal pits trucks against transit

Interstate-5 Fremont Bridge, Portland ( Image: Shutterstock )

In the early 1990s Brent Vanderpol used to be able to drive from his house in Clark County, Washington to northwest Portland – a distance of about 15 miles – in 30 minutes.  

“Now it could easily take an hour and a half,” said Vanderpol, president of Peninsula Truck Lines, based in Federal Way, Washington. His business is taking a financial hit from the congestion, and the traffic slog impacts employees who live in the area.

Congestion on I-5 and I-205 near the Oregon-Washington border has worsened dramatically over the past decade. The data firm Inrix estimated that Portland delays in 2017 cost $3.9 billion in fuel, lost time and freight delays – and surveys of commuter and freight interests rank traffic here as among  the country’s worst. With Portland expected to add more than 500,000 new residents in the next 20 years, there is a huge sense of urgency to find solutions.

What those solutions should be is a thorny subject. Recently the  Federal Highway Administration (FHA) gave its initial approval to an Oregon proposal that would toll segments of both freeways starting near the Washington border. As the next phase moves forward – tolls are still at least five years away – the project is raising questions about who will pay and how the revenue will be spent, and has reignited debates about highway versus transit investment in Portland, a city that 45 years ago famously redirected money intended for a new freeway into the nation’s first light rail project.

Truckers support tolls that would increase efficiencies and offset the cost of congestion, said Jana Jarvis, the head of the Oregon Trucking Associations (OTA). “But,” said Jarvis, who represented trucking interests on a committee studying the tolling, “we want additional lanes, additional road capacity.”

The Washington Trucking Associations referred FreightWaves to Vanderpol for comment. He echoed OTA’s position. “We are supportive of tolls if they create new road capacity.”

That contingency doesn’t sit well with the Street Trust, a Portland-based bike, pedestrian and transit advocacy group. The FHA’s approval called for the state to study a hugely complex set of issues, including how tolling revenue will be spent, and what impact it will have on neighborhood traffic and low- income residents, noted Richa Poudyal, the Street Trust’s advocacy director.

“In this next phase we advocate for [toll] revenue to be allocated for transit improvements rather than highway projects,” Poudyal said. “If the proposal doesn’t address those considerations, or if the revenue is only used for highways, we won’t support it.”

The tolls are upending traditional alliances. The  conservative political establishment in Clark County, Washington is typically allied with freight interests. But with few exceptions, local politicians are opposed to tolling.

Thousands of Clark County residents commute into Portland every day, said Eileen Quiring, the chair of the Clark County Council. Tolls “would be a big hardship,” she stated.

Quiring sat on a regional committee considering tolling mechanisms. “I was against it the entire time,” she said.

U.S. Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler, a Republican who represents southwest Washington, opposes the tolls on the basis that funds from the tolls would be used to pay for Oregon infrastructure that Clark County residents won’t use.

Although the details have yet to be hashed out, the current proposal would use I-205 tolling revenue to build a new bridge on that freeway, about 25 miles south of Vancouver.  The thinking about the I-5 tolls is they would be limited to a few exits just past the interstate bridge, and that revenues would be used to reduce congestion and fund improvements to the I-5 Rose Quarter.

A congestion pricing model would raise tolls during peak travel times.

Under state law, tolling revenue must go into the state highway fund, and under the state constitution, the highway fund has to be used for highway projects, said Don Hamilton, a spokesperson for the Oregon Department of Transportation.

It is not clear if something like a bike path or bus lanes could be defined as a highway project.

Those pushing for additional highway lanes scored a win last December, when language was approved for a 2020 ballot measure that would restrict Oregon’s use of toll money to add capacity for vehicles.  One of the measure’s chief petitioners was Julie Parrish, a long-time Republican state legislator who lost her bid for reelection this past November.

Trucking interests and transit advocates may yet find a point of intersection. A couple of years ago Martin Daum, then CEO of Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA), noted that trucks were critical for freight mobility. But, he said, transit, not cars, was the most efficient way of moving people around, especially in cities.

Daum has since assumed a position as head of the Daimler Trucks & Buses Division and as a Member of the Board of Management at Daimler AG.

Freight mobility is important for the economy, Poudyal said.  “We want to see less people needing to drive, something truckers want to see. In that way we have common ground.”

Linda Baker, Senior Environment and Technology Reporter

Linda Baker is a FreightWaves senior reporter based in Portland, Oregon. Her beat includes autonomous vehicles, the startup scene, clean trucking, and emissions regulations. Please send tips and story ideas to [email protected]