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Regional Interests

Bill to expand Portland-area freeway capacity and implement tolling faces strong criticism

A proposal before Oregon’s Legislature to carve out $30 million a year to help fund major freeway projects and establish a tolling program in the Portland metro area is facing sharp rebuke from both environmentalists and advocates of multi-modal transit systems.

Lawmakers on Thursday will consider around a dozen amendments to House Bill 3065 which would set aside state funds made available by Oregon’s 2017 transportation package for renovation projects at the Interstate 5 Rose Quarter stretch, on I-205 between Stafford Road and OR-213 and seismic upgrades on the I-5 Boone Bridge in Wilsonville. The bill and its proposed amendments also seek to establish a tolling program on the entire freeway system through the Portland region — from Wilsonville to the Washington border — as both a source of revenue for projects and as a tool to manage traffic congestion.

But many people, along with think tanks and advocacy groups, are outraged that the state legislature and Oregon Department of Transportation are considering funneling dollars and giving priority to what they consider freeway “widening” projects. Opponents argue that lawmakers and the state’s transportation agency should be focused on making local highways safer for bikes and pedestrians, as well as adding capacity for mass transit options.

A coalition of metro area citizens and advocacy groups known as “No More Freeways PDX” has spent the last three years organizing a grassroots effort to oppose projects like ODOT’s Rose Quarter expansion project. The group’s argument centers around environmental concerns that adding freeway capacity won’t solve the region’s congestion issues and will actually add to the negative impacts that motor vehicle emissions have on the environment.

The move to improve freeway capacity through the metro area comes as Oregon lawmakers are doubling down on efforts to bring the state’s carbon emissions to heel through HB 2021. The new law would require Oregon’s two largest energy providers to reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2030, and to zero by 2040.

But according to the Department of Environmental Quality, 36% of the state’s carbon emissions in 2019 were created by cars and trucks, making vehicle emissions the largest source of carbon in Oregon.

Proponents of HB 3065 assert that in reducing traffic congestion, the bill would support the state’s greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals.

The No More Freeways coalition doesn’t agree.

Many members of the group — led by veteran political organizer and consultant Aaron Brown — submitted testimony on HB 3065 questioning what impact lawmakers believe these projects will have on the issues the bill seeks to address and pointing out that more cars on Portland’s freeways translates to more carbon. For Brown and others in his coalition, faith in ODOT to accurately forecast toll revenue to then take out loans against it and begin shovel-ready projects like the I-205 renovation is low. He argues that if tolling is to be implemented, congestion pricing — variable pricing based on traffic and peak usage — is the best bet to get metro-area drivers to change their behaviors in a way that adds value to the regional freeway system.

“ODOT talks a big game about these projects lowering carbon emissions. That’s, politely, bunk,” Brown wrote on behalf of the coalition. “If ODOT was serious about carbon emissions, the agency would be dramatically investing more in transit, biking and walking — not writing a blank check for these projects.”

The No More Freeways group has attracted activists whose values in climate advocacy align, and their slogan takes aim at Oregon leaders who in recent years have emerged as leaders on climate issues.

“Climate leaders don’t widen freeways” has become a battle cry of sorts for the group which includes many young community organizers with the Sunrise Movement. That includes 22-year-old Cassie Wilson of Boring, who testified against HB 3065 on the grounds that young adults like herself are seeking alternatives to driving, and yet they’re left feeling like the investment in their preferred modes of transportation isn’t meeting their needs.

“Over the past year, we have seen Clackamas County take hit after hit from windstorms, wildfires and ice storms — all of which worsened by climate change,” Wilson said. “With this crisis looming over, why are our elected officials still aiming to throw millions of dollars into widening several miles of I-205 when that will only exacerbate the problem?”

Rep. Susan McLain, D-Hillsboro, is co-chair of the legislature’s joint committee on transportation where HB 3065 is receiving hearings and work sessions. According to McLain, lawmakers are concerned about the effects emissions have on global climate change and our local environment, but she and others feel that the need for major safety improvements and capacity building can’t be ignored.

“Environmental leaders are just like any other leader. You’ve got to have more than one solution, you’ve got to have more than one tool, and you’ve got to make sure that you’re looking at all possibilities,” McLain said.

Much of the criticism around HB 3065 has been lodged against Oregon’s Democratic leadership, including House Speaker Tina Kotek, whose amendments to the bill are paving the way for ODOT to move forward with these projects and toll implementation. That critique centers around the fact that Democrats over the past two years have mobilized groups like the Sunrise Movement and other environmental advocates to fight for bold climate action on their behalf as they attempted to pass an ambitious cap and trade program resulting in the last two legislative sessions being blown up by Republican walkouts.

But Kotek believes her work in cementing HB 2017′s legacy — the largest transportation package in Oregon’s history and the precursor to HB 3065 — shows her commitment to climate action and investments for multi-modal transit options that these activists are calling for.

“In 2017, the Speaker fought for dedicated funding for public transit, bicycle and pedestrian investments and support for zero emissions vehicles,” said Lindsey O’Brien, Kotek’s chief of staff. “Now, we still need to make our roads safer, decrease congestion, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation. The Speaker believes the concept goes further in the right direction, and that we still have a moral imperative to act on a much greater scale to address the climate emergency.”

ODOT is also bearing its share of rebuke from members of the No More Freeways coalition and other outspoken groups who say the agency’s track record on pricing its projects doesn’t spark faith in its ability to take out loans against forecasted toll revenue.

Joe Cortright is an economist who founded the City Observatory, a Portland-based economic think tank that maintains a blog on a number of running issues facing Oregon and the metro region, from housing and homelessness to transportation and development. Cortright, who has served 12 years as the executive director of the Oregon Legislature’s trade and economic development committee, believes that congestion pricing — valuing the price of a toll against peak congestion and usage — as opposed to flat-rate tolling could solve a lot of the problems that ODOT is trying to fix through these three projects and with tolls. HB 3065 as it stands would prioritize congestion pricing over flat-rate tolling.

According to Cortright, the purpose behind congestion pricing, also known as “value pricing,” is that it seeks to change driver behavior. So instead of taking a trip at peak congestion hours where the toll is higher, a driver would rearrange their trips to use the freeway at a time when it’s less expensive or free to use, or choose not to take the trip at all.

“I know a lot of people don’t like the idea of having to pay for roads because it seems like it’s an additional cost on top of what they’re already paying and roads are heavily subsidized,” Cortright said. “But the British have this wonderful term ‘value for money,’ and that’s really what road pricing does. If you decide you want to travel at peak hour and spend a little bit of money, and it’s usually a dollar or two, you’re guaranteed a fast and timely trip.”

Cortright also said that Oregon has not fully realized the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our relationship with commuting. As the state comes out of the pandemic and people begin returning to offices, many companies could find that they don’t need employees to be physically present, thus cutting down on a large sector of the workforce that once relied upon the freeway system to get to work.

“It’s too soon to tell, in a way, how much of this is short term, one off change and will bounce back to before times, versus permanent change in behavior,” Cortright said. “And that’s another reason why it’s a very bad time to make huge investments in infrastructure that you may not need.”

Cortright alleges that cost overruns on “virtually all ODOT’s large projects” and a lack of experience forecasting tolls is largely the reason he puts little faith in the agency’s ability to get this tolling program right.

He said that it’s common for transportation agencies to overestimate the revenue they’ll receive and then are forced to pay back bond money out of their own pocket or the state’s. He points to a bailout of the Tacoma Narrows bridge by the Washington Legislature this year that prevented tolls from skyrocketing to keep up with payments on the state’s loans used to build the bridge back in 2007.

But ODOT’s lead economist Daniel Porter refutes that lack of experience and points to leaders within their agency like Lucinda Broussard, the agency’s toll program manager, who he says has firsthand experience implementing tolling programs around the country.

“We also have general toll consultants that our program has hired and giant national firms, so we have affiliate financial advisors on the finance bonding side whose specialties are in tolling,” Porter said. “We have a lot of resources available to us that we’re utilizing to help us as we think through how to develop a toll program and eventually finance when we have a toll program.”

ODOT officials hope to know a lot more about what the final bill will look like and what kind of edict it hands the agency in moving forward on these projects.

Lindsay Baker, ODOT’s assistant director of government and external affairs, said it’s a good sign the state is seeing a lot of agreement and alignment between lawmakers and members of the Oregon Transportation Commission in terms of what route to take in implementing tolls, but it remains to be seen who will make the final decision between the legislature, transportation commission and top policy wonks within ODOT.

“We’ll be looking to Oregonians and the state as a whole to inform the conversation and inform the way we set up the program and how that translates into how it’s usable or not to the people who are actually using the system,” Baker said.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting