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Portland tolling committee begins work

The 25-member committee is charged with recommending tolling options for Interstate 5 and Interstate 205 in the Portland metropolitan area.

PARIS ACHEN/CAPITAL BUREAU - Members of the Portland Area Value Pricing Policy Advisory Committee held their first meeting at the Porltand office of the Oregon Department of Transportation Monday, Nov. 20, 2017. Left to right: Kris Strickler of the Washington State Department of Transportation, Tony DeFalco of Verde, Washington County Commissioner Roy Rogers, Neil McFarlane of TriMet, Phil Ditzler of the Federal Highway Administration, Clackamas County Commissioner Paul Savas and Brendan Finn of the City of Portland.PORTLAND — The first meeting of a policy committee charged with recommending tolls for Portland-area interstates may have been most notable for defining what a regional tolling system will not be.

The tolls that the Portland Area Value Pricing Policy Advisory Committee are considering will not involve stopping at booths to pay a cashier, or slowing down to toss coins into a kiosk.

They may be optional for commuters who want to save time to reach a destination, or priced dynamically to encourage travel during slower times of the day.

"When we are talking about (value) pricing we are not talking about putting toll booths," said Trey Baker, a consultant with New York-based transportation engineering and management firm WSP USA. "That is just not the way it is done anymore."

The Oregon Department of Transportation hired WSP USA to serve as a resource for the tolling committee.

The committee's meeting Monday, Nov. 20, at ODOT's Portland office was the first of six meetings aimed at developing proposals to establish a regional tolling system on Interstates 5 and 205 in the Portland metropolitan area.

The committee is charged with voting on a proposal to recommend to the Oregon Transportation Commission by the end of June. The commission, the policy-setting body for ODOT, will ultimately decide on whether to pursue tolls and any specific tolling structure.

The transportation commission also needs authorization from the Federal Highway Administration to enforce the tolls. The commission would need to submit its application for that authority by Dec. 31, 2018.

"As we look at this, we are looking at the feasibility or viability," said Oregon Transportation Commissioner Sean O'Hollaren, a member of the tolling committee. "We may come up and say this doesn't work here, but we have to look at it.

"The one thing we do know is when we invest in infrastructure to expand and to address these issues, it's not free, and we have to figure out how to pay for it."

The commission is under increasing pressure to act on ways to reduce congestion in the Portland area.

Transportation-funding legislation, passed earlier this year, required the commission to come up with the congestion-based pricing plan.

Traffic in the Portland area burgeoned by 13 percent between 2013 and 2015, while delays increased by 22 percent, according to an ODOT analysis.

"As a result many parts of the system are gridlocked for hours per day," said Mandy Putney, ODOT major projects manager.

Three examples of states that have developed congestion-based tolling are Washington, Texas, and Maryland, Baker said.

The concept of "value pricing" or "congestion pricing" is to use toll charges and incentives to change commuters' choices about when and where to drive.

Used along with other traffic-mitigating methods, the congestion-priced tolls can help relieve congestion and save billions of dollars in time and other costs associated with congestion, Baker said.

Washington, for example, used tolls to pay for an eight-mile replacement of the SR-520 floating bridge. The tolls for the bridge are priced based on supply and demand. The fewer drivers on the route, the lower the tolls. The prices range from $1.25 to $4.30, Baker said.

Washington also has boosted transit use by allowing buses to use HOV lanes, which increases the reliability of transit travel times.

The state also converted an HOV lane to a congestion-priced express lane on I-405 along 17 miles in the Seattle area. Taking the express lane can save 11 to 15 minutes of travel time, he said.

Public comments are accepted at each of the committee's meetings and by email at ValuePricingPAC@odot.state.or.us.

Paris Achen
Portland Tribune Capital Bureau
email: pachen@portlandtribune.com
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