The Oregon Transportation Commission and the Department of Transportation are now on a fast track to charge tolls at the Interstate 205 Abernethy Bridge in Oregon City and the Tualatin River Bridge near Tualatin and Lake Oswego. Tolling all lanes of these bridges could be operational in 2025.
ODOT describes the project as adding a third lane and providing seismic improvements to bridges on I-205 from Stafford Road to State Highway 213. Tolls will be the primary source of revenue to complete what ODOT is calling the I-205 Toll Project.
Project information indicates tolls could range from 60 cents to $2.20 for each trip. An assessment of project impacts now being prepared by ODOT will be released this month. The assessment is required by the Federal Highway Administration.
Tolls could be in effect in late 2024 or 2025 should FHWA agree the project has no significant impacts.
Several cities in the project area are worried that tolling will increase traffic diversion through their cities. City officials say, and most of us would agree, that traffic diversion from a freeway to avoid tolls harms livability and worsens traffic safety.
ODOT also agrees with this, concluding that traffic diversion will be “moderate.” They also say diversion can be “mitigated.” City officials feel there isn’t mitigation that can fix the traffic diversion problem.
After a public review period, if FHWA finds there are no significant social, economic or environmental impacts caused by the project or tolls, the project will proceed to construction. This could happen this spring.
Users of I-205 facing tolls may want to know why other funding sources aren’t used. After all, for decades freeways and highways have been improved without being tolled. We’ll get to that in a moment.
Estimates indicate that monthly toll charges could cost these users over $1,000 a year just to use I-205. $500 is about what the average driver pays annually in gas taxes and vehicle registration and title fees to drive on all roads, streets and highways in the state.
So, what’s going on? The legislature, in 2017 and 2021 mandated that ODOT study using tolls. This legislation also raised the gas tax, but these increases sunset in 2024.
There appears to be enough money being deposited in the State Highway Fund to at least consider a non-toll revenue source for the project.
Gas taxes and related taxes on heavy trucks approved by the legislature in 2017 now raise $500 million per year. This revenue is shared with cities and counties.
County and city elected officials are grateful as their roads and streets are safer and in better condition than ever. Tolls will not be part of this revenue sharing formula.
Isn’t it inherent upon ODOT in its project assessment to compare tolling with a project funded with revenue that has been used historically?
Further, why isn’t ODOT looking at express lane tolls? 13 other states toll express lanes to add traffic capacity and deal with traffic congestion.
Express lanes give drivers a choice to pay a toll for a faster trip. These lanes, according to traffic studies done by ODOT over four years ago, will result in less traffic diversion than tolling all lanes of the bridges. Perhaps ODOT dropped this alternative since only one express lane would be tolled, and toll collections would be only 25% of what tolling all lanes over the bridge would collect.
ODOT has not stated publicly that faster travel times on freeway will be due to the new lanes increasing freeway capacity by 50%. Mandatory tolling will have very little to do with moving vehicles faster. Express lanes do.
Tolling has its place. But ODOT’s first variable price tolling project on I-205 is the wrong solution in the wrong place. After five years of study has ODOT blundered into mandatory tolling because it raises the most revenue?
If so, this is more than a mere public relations mistake. Toll revenue comes with a price. Just ask the cities who will take the brunt of unwanted traffic, decreased road safety and not gain any benefit from the generated toll revenue.
Once the legislature becomes more informed of the true social and economic cost of tolling all lanes, let’s hope they will renew the bill they passed in 2017 with a bipartisan vote.
This will ensure ODOT has enough revenue to do the I-205 Project without imposing tolls. If you don’t want the tolls, get in contact with your legislators. It’s a very good way to start.
Cam Gilmour is now retired from serving as ODOT's deputy director of finance and administration, Clackamas County's director of transportation and development and the state of Washington's transportation department's chief operating officer.