The Smart Solution To Gridlock: Congestion Pricing

The Challenge

Congestion in the Portland metropolitan area* is not only a consternation, it has serious impacts on our economy, health, and environment.

Economy: Congestion impacts productivity, and—in Oregon’s heavily trade dependent economy—it’s important for producers across the state to be able to move goods into and through Portland in a predictable, reliable, and timely fashion. According to EcoNorthwest, congestion acts as a sort of “tax” on the overall economy, costing us approximately 1-2% of gross product annually.

Health and environment: Idling cars pump out extra air pollution because the catalytic converters that capture pollutants before they hit the tailpipe don’t function as well in stop-and-go traffic. The neighborhoods flanking busy roadways suffer a heavier health burden from this air (and noise) pollution and are often lower-income. Cars delayed by congestion also burn more gasoline than cars traveling at steady speeds, with every additional gallon burned generating nearly 20 pounds of heat-trapping carbon dioxide.

The Solution

The most effective and least expensive solution for reducing congestion is to put a price on road use during peak hours of the day, a policy called congestion pricing or value pricing. This gives drivers an incentive to shift driving away from peak traffic periods, to carpool when they do drive during peak periods, or to use a different transportation mode. Those who choose to drive during rush hour receive value in return for the higher toll they pay: the ability to move quickly to their destination. Other cities with high levels of congestion are successfully using congestion pricing to eliminate gridlock, both in the U.S. and abroad.

It is essential that the revenue from road pricing be spent on providing alternative transportation, not on building or maintaining roads. This investment should be focused on ensuring that people with the least access to the system and for whom the pricing is the greatest burden are provided with convenient, affordable, accessible transportation choices.

The Benefits

Reducing congestion will clean our air, reduce our carbon footprint, help drivers get more miles per gallon, keep our economy humming, and eliminate the need for expensive new roads. Congestion pricing is the smartest way to manage our existing road system, and it generates revenue to make our transportation system more just, sustainable, and efficient.


How Does Congestion Pricing Work?

Congestion pricing* uses the concept of supply and demand to improve the efficiency of our road system. There are many different applications, but the basic gist is apply a variable toll (collected electronically) based on how congested the road segment is in order to encourage drivers to drive at a less congested time, carpool to share the cost, or take another transportation mode to get where they are going.

Is It Fair to Price Congestion? What About Equity Implications?

When we drive during rush hour, we impose time delays on all of the drivers behind us, and it is we who are demanding more road space, not our neighbors who drive at a different time or choose public transit. However, the price we pay to maintain and expand our highways is not differentiated by who uses those roads: it is spread across every Oregonian paying gas taxes and registration fees. It’s only fair that those of us who use the freeways more pay a bit more.

Key to the design of a fair congestion pricing system is to provide affordable, reliable and frequent alternatives to driving, including more transit options, such as buses that will also benefit from reduced congestion.

Although most peak-hour trips are made by higher-income drivers, travelers with lower incomes do drive during peak periods. In fact, many low-income residents have been pushed to Portland’s periphery where they are forced to travel longer distances and have fewer public transit options. Typically, their jobs are less flexible, and it hurts their pocketbook more when their child’s day care charges late fees. Because congestion can be an even greater burden for these members of our community, congestion relief is a good thing, but ability to pay also comes into play. In situations where low-income residents are unable to avoid congestion pricing, the system can be made fair and equitable through targeted discounts or exemptions.

See this Road Pricing Infographic: How Tolling Impacts Various Road Users

Is Congestion Pricing Effective?

Congestion pricing is a proven solution. Every city that has priced congestion has benefitted from less congestion and lower emissions. In the London example, not only has traffic and pollution fallen, but also traffic-related deaths. In addition, congestion relief tolls generate new revenue to address transportation priorities.

Won’t Traffic Be Diverted?

Some drivers will divert to free alternatives, which is why system design is important. However, the opposite also occurs: certain drivers shift back to the priced highway because they value the faster trip.

Why Can’t We Just Build More Roads?

Expanding highways or building new ones is extremely expensive, is often geographically impossible, and tends to spur sprawl. Expanded highways also come at the expense of the communities they bisect. For example, when I-5 was built through North Portland, it created a two-block wide chasm through Albina, a low-income neighborhood with a predominantly African-American population.

Moreover, highway expansion doesn’t actually solve congestion. As soon as word spreads that a particular highway is no longer congested, drivers who were avoiding rush hour shift back to the peak period. Drivers who had been taking alternative routes shift back to the recently widened highway. And some commuters taking public transit shift back to driving. Within a short time, the road becomes just as congested as it was before its expansion. In one egregious example, after Texas spent nearly $2.8 billion expanding the Katy Freeway to 26 lanes, congestion is actually worse. In short, traffic is like a gas: it’ll expand to fill any space it’s given.

What Is Oregon Environmental Council’s Role?

In 2017, the Oregon Legislature passed legislation requiring that value pricing be implemented in the Portland metro area on I-205 and I-5. Oregon Environmental Council participated in ODOT’s Value Pricing Advisory Committee and is participating in Portland’s Pricing Options for Equitable Mobility task force to ensure that value pricing:

  • Moves freight and people more reliably to improve economic productivity
  • Reduces climate pollution and air pollution
  • Advances equity and affordability
  • Improves access and convenience of walking, biking, and taking transit in areas where congestion pricing is implemented, in order to provide affordable, sustainable transportation choices
  • Does not disproportionately divert traffic to local streets

The Portland metropolitan region has an opportunity to create a better transportation system through a well-designed congestion pricing system. Learn more about ODOT’s process and provide your feedback online.

*Notwithstanding the fact that congestion impacts many travelers, the average commute in the Portland region is actually shorter and faster than in many other metropolitan areas in the nation. Nearly two-thirds of commuters in the region have a commute under a half-hour, making Portland tied for the fifth-best metro area commute in the nation. There’s also the flip side of congestion—empty roads would indicate a lack of jobs and commerce, rather than a humming economy.

**Synonyms for congestion pricing include value pricing, variable rate tolling, peak period pricing, congestion relief tolling, and decongestion fees.