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Oregon Builds a Toolbox to Fight Its Infrastructure Deficit

By: 
Bill Cramer

The state of Oregon is considering tolling as one of a series of measures to begin drawing down a stubborn infrastructure deficit.

But that’s just the second-most exciting feature of the $5.3-billion funding package that passed both houses of the state legislature last week, and was then forwarded on to Governor Kate Brown to be signed into law.

Most encouraging of all is the plan to seek the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) permission to use tolling as a form of congestion relief along highways I-205 and I-5. This is just one part of a comprehensive funding package that also includes taxes and fees dedicated to surface transportation infrastructure funding.

Oregon, which has long been a leader in the development of road usage charging, is at it again, this time acknowledging that there’s no single silver bullet in the effort to restore America’s long-underfunded highway system.

“How can we not be pleased to see Oregon treating tolls as one tool in a toolbox of funding strategies?” asks IBTTA Executive Director and CEO Pat Jones. “It’s what we’ve been talking about for years. Oregon is a great example of what states can get done when they take a close look at all the funding options.”

Getting the Vision Right

The Oregon transportation bill calls for value pricing, possibly including time-of-day rates, to control congestion, plus the request for federal permission to impose tolls at the state line, The Columbian reported last week. Mark Hallenbeck, director of the Washington State Transportation Center at the University of Washington, came up with a basic but effective argument for using pricing to manage traffic flows.

“Transportation is an economic good,” he said. “When you make something cost more, people buy less of it. When it’s cheaper, people buy more of it.”

Which means a variable pricing scheme holds out far greater hope of sustained congestion relief than a more traditional solution like building a new roadway with no pricing scheme in mind.

“When you widen the road, congestion will go down,” he said. But after a while, “it fills back up again.”

Details Taking Shape

The details of the tolling plan will be subject to further analysis, but Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) Assistant Director Travis Brouwer plans to move swiftly to sort out the available options. Possibilities include HOT lanes, variable pricing on bridges, or converting existing lanes into tolled facilities, The Columbian noted.

“We’ll work with regional stakeholders to determine what objectives we’re seeking to reach using value pricing, then we’ll look at what alternatives there might be to apply it and which ones best meet those objectives,” Brouwer said. “Then we’ll go to the federal government once we’ve developed a plan.”

He’s operating on a tight timeline. The state bill requires ODOT to form a transportation commission to seek FHWA approval for its plan by December 31, 2018.

But one key element of the plan is quickly becoming clear: According to the news report, toll proceeds “would likely contribute to widening projects on I-5 through Portland’s Rose Quarter and other highways in the state.” That means Oregon will be looking to tolling for two critical pieces of the mobility puzzle: the dollars to pay for new capacity, and the pricing system to keep that capacity running smoothly and efficiently.

Visit a vibrant U.S. city that has been a leader in express lane development. Register today for IBTTA’s 85th Annual Meeting and Exhibition, September 10-12, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia.