Tolling in Oregon: What’s The Deal?
What is tolling?
It seems like a simple question, but a “toll” can be understood in many different ways. Most simply, a toll is a charge for driving a vehicle on a specific piece of roadway.
Looking beyond that, though, there are a lot of really interesting questions worth considering. For example, how much should a toll cost? What is the toll really paying for? Should every vehicle be charged the same amount, regardless of factors like the time of day or the number of passengers? The answers to these questions are more important than you might think. The price of a toll, much like the price of a loaf of bread or a gallon of gas, can ripple outward in important ways.
What’s going on with tolling in Oregon?
Tolling will begin in the Portland Metro region in a few years because the Oregon Department of Transportation needs a way to pay for multiple expensive highway expansion projects in the region. See more information on ODOT’s tolling website.
The tolling was approved by the Oregon State Legislature in 2017 as part of a large package of transportation legislation, HB 2017. The legislation directed ODOT to pilot “Value Pricing”(a specific kind of road pricing designed to reduce congestion) on I-5 and I-205, and was followed by a stakeholder advisory process that resulted in a recommendation to pilot pricing all lanes on selected segments of I-5 and I-205.
ODOT is currently borrowing money to build more highway lanes, then charging drivers to pay off those loans. This seems straightforward but let’s look a little more closely. If ODOT is depending on tolls to pay off debt, then it actually needs to make sure people keep driving on the tolled road. What we need, from a climate and equity perspective, is fewer cars on smaller roads, not more and more drivers on bigger and bigger highways.
Oregon Environmental Council was among the many transportation advocates who raised concerns about these changes, and the trajectory of the pricing policy.
What does OEC think about this?
OEC is closely tracking the tolling policy development because of the enormous potential that tolling holds as a tool to support climate and equity outcomes. Pricing the use of the roadway can be very effective in reducing vehicle trips and shifting trips to less congested times and routes and to more space-efficient and less-polluting modes, such as public transit. Just like a cup of coffee or a loaf of bread, as the cost of driving a car goes up, people start adjusting their behavior and looking for ways to keep costs down. And, a tolling system can be designed to reduce the transportation cost burden on households with the least resources. However, these outcomes must be built into the system, and ODOT’s approach does not currently include the necessary commitments to ensure them.
We are very concerned that ODOT continues to direct its tolling policy focus on revenue generation, which not only undercuts the climate and equity potential of pricing, but also further burdens low-income households with transportation costs.
We want to see the tolling approach in the Portland Metro region dramatically shifted:
- The cost structure should be designed to reduce congestion, not maximize revenue. In practice, this would mean keeping the tolls fairly low, even zero when there isn’t a lot of traffic, and setting them just high enough to discourage some people from making trips during high-traffic times. This will free up space and make driving trips faster and more reliable at peak times, which is great for commercial trucks and for people who have no other choice but to drive.
- The revenue collected through tolling should be used to support a better set of options for people to get around the region, especially by walking, biking, carpooling, and riding transit. The key is investing in affordable, timely, and safe, options, rather than using tolling to pay off the debt for the construction of road expansion projects that increase vehicle miles traveled, create more demand on limited land, drive up costs, and create new maintenance obligations.
OEC is working toward changes in the tolling policy by participating in agency and legislative processes. While there aren’t any really big decisions where we can weigh in, there are some ways that individuals can let ODOT and decision-makers know that we’re paying attention.
- You can comment directly to ODOT on the tolling project by emailing them.
Not sure what to say? You can refer to our bullet points above, or just let them know that the current approach to pricing should:
- Reduce traffic by creating incentives to travel at different times or to travel via biking, walking, or transit
- Not be tied to paying off debt for highway expansions
- Invest in creating more options, so people have convenient alternatives to driving alone
Past OEC writing on congestion pricing
Want to learn more about tolling?
- Local/regional analysis
- Portland Bureau of Transportation’s 2021 Portland Pricing Options for Equitable Mobility process (site includes final recommendations and useful staff memos on pricing, including one on highway tolling)
- Metro Regional Government’s 2021 Metro Congestion Pricing Study (site includes final report and recorded discussion with an expert panel)
- Other resources
- Longer View: The Fairness of Congestion Pricing (Michael Manville)
- Smarter Transportation Pricing, Please! (Planetizen)
- How to Unclog Traffic and Improve Equity in Seattle (Sightline)