People Priced to the Edge of Portland Now Face the Expensive Prospect of Highway Tolls

This is Oregon’s first foray into congestion pricing—but the debate about how tolls impact working-class people is long and inconclusive.

(Thomas Teal)

Karin Power moved to Milwaukie five years ago when the rent in Southeast Portland got too high.

Since then, her political career has taken off: She was elected to the Milwaukie City Council, then to the Oregon Legislature, becoming one of the most promising new members of the House's Democratic caucus.

Last week, Oregon Democrats managed to pass one of their top priorities of the 2017 session: a $5.3 billion transportation package that will widen highways, fix bridges and make streets safer for walking and biking.

Power voted no.

Among her reasons: The package authorizes tolling on two interstate highways running through the Portland metro area. And Power believes the package's tax hikes and road tolls could place a new financial burden on former Portlanders who have been priced out of the city.

With the transportation package's success assured, Power essentially cast a protest vote: She says Oregon should not begin tolling the highways until it gives working-class families protection from rent hikes and no-cause evictions. Otherwise, she warns, the burden of paying for roads will fall on the people who must endure long commutes because they cannot afford to live in Portland.

"Anything that raises the cost of getting around is very troubling to me," says Power. "We need to change the approach of tenant protection in this state. I don't want us to end up like San Francisco, where people are traveling an hour or two to get to minimum-wage jobs."

The transportation package is the Legislature's signature achievement in a 2017 session that ended last week. Democrats got enough Republican votes to pass it in part by stripping the expansion of I-205 out of the bill—and agreeing instead to toll roads.

The bill passed July 6 says Oregon will seek federal permission to install tolls on two Portland highways—Interstate 5 and Interstate 205—from the Washington state border to Wilsonville.

They would be the state's first experiment with "congestion pricing," or tolls that increase with traffic, so that driving during rush hour could be more expensive than a midnight run to Taco Bell.

Power was one of three Portland-area Democrats to defect from the plan last week. In part, their decision can be traced to their districts—each of them is at least partly in conservative Clackamas County, where voters will rankle at not getting their highways funded first. But three of them cited road tolling's potential to disproportionately impact the poor among their objections.

Rep. Susan McLain (D-Hillsboro), who championed the transportation bill, says the changes could benefit everyone.

"It's giving people the option to change the use of the system so there's not as much congestion," she says. At a dozen town halls across the state, she says she heard the same thing: "We need to have you clean up the congestion in Portland because it's wrecking our opportunities."

How much the tolls will cost, how they'll be collected, and whether they'll apply to all lanes or merely charge a premium for express lanes are all still up in the air.

Over the next 18 months, the state is directed to study the cost of putting congestion pricing into effect along I-205 and I-5. That directive cues what is likely to be years of debate over how the pricing will be instituted—and how the money will be spent—to minimize the impact on low-income Oregonians.

Oregon Department of Transportation spokesman Don Hamilton says the state would consider creating tolled fast lanes or simply installing tollbooths at a few key spots, such as bridges. Hamilton says all these ideas could involve charging more at peak driving hours.

Washington state has four tolled highways and uses congestion pricing. Rates for one 17-mile express lane of I-405 near Bellevue range from 75 cents to $10, depending on traffic.

"We don't know what specifically will be tolled," says Hamilton. "We have a group that's going to look at this. We're going to work with local governments and local stakeholders to determine what we intend to do."

This is Oregon's first foray into congestion pricing—but the debate about how tolls impact working-class people is long and inconclusive.

An analysis of possible tolls for roads in Seattle by the Washington State Department of Transportation in 2009 shows a low-income working family could spend as much as 15 percent of its income on highway tolls.

Some local planners say the benefits of tolling—like faster rush hours—could outweigh the costs for low-income commuters.

"This is something that could have a hugely positive impact on our low-income communities," says Tyler Frisbee, a policy development manager for the regional planning agency Metro. "Or it could be a giant bust."

Among the ways Frisbee sees that it could go bust: Congestion pricing could divert drivers off toll roads into low-income communities, creating greater air pollution. Among the possible solutions: making sure there is no easy way around the tolls.

Power wants to make sure that if tolling is instituted, it's on both I-205 and I-5, so that particular communities along the highways don't end up with worse air pollution. And she wants to make sure the money gets spent in ways that will help her constituents.

"We should be looking to fund further public transit" with the tolling revenue, she says. (That could be difficult. Under the Oregon Constitution, tolls must go directly back into roads. Expanding roads to create dedicated bus lanes is allowed, however.)

To be sure, the transportation package includes several big benefits for low-income commuters—including up to $12 million for rebates on fares for low-income TriMet riders, long a policy priority for advocates looking for greater equity.

The bill also includes long-sought improvements to outer Southeast Powell Boulevard, a state highway that Portland wants to wrest from state control—after the state agreed to upgrade it.

The bill funds an estimated $110 million in improvements to outer Powell to make the transfer possible.
The champion of that agreement: first-year Rep. Janelle Bynum (D-East Portland, Clackamas).

But Bynum ultimately voted against the bill, as Bike Portland first reported. She, like Power, worries road tolls would hurt people in her district.

"In the case of I-205, the bill calls for tolling and other revenue-collection mechanisms that will impact the wallets of everyday Oregonians," she said in a statement. "It is hard to swallow the idea of residents being forced to disproportionately carry the burden of paying for the road improvements, with no clear date for when work could begin."

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