“I have a real problem with tolling.” Those words from Canby resident Angela Nyland pretty much summed up the vast majority of comments at a virtual town hall hosted by the Clackamas County Board of Commissioners Wednesday night.
If tolling does come to Interstate 205 and I-5 — though in actual fact, the question is not “if,” but when — Nyland is out, she said.
“We will go back to how we drove in 1981, going down to the Canby Ferry to get around,” she told commissioners. “It will be on 24-hour diversion. … I’m just not participating. I will miss West Linn tremendously. I’ll miss my doctor. I’ll miss the small shops. I’ll enjoy shopping more in Canby. But I’m not going to do it.”
Few had anything good to say about the Oregon Department of Transportation’s plans to toll I-205 near the Abernethy Bridge in Oregon City as well as the Tualatin River crossing.
“This is a punitive tax,” said Donald resident Charlie Dudley. “A toll is a punitive tax. It’’s a regressive tax, regardless how anyone wants to frame this, and we should not be doing that.”
The funds are needed, ODOT officials say, to complete improvements along a seven-mile stretch of I-205 from Stafford Road in West Linn to Highway 213 in Oregon City, including seismic upgrades that would make Abernethy the state’s first earthquake-ready highway bridge across the Willamette River.
The project will also add a third to the only remaining two-lane section of I-205 and is anticipated to reduce crashes and cut daily congestion by more than four and a half hours. This bottleneck is currently one of the most congested in the state, with more than 100,000 vehicles passing through each day.
“Not having a toll means we don’t have a project,” ODOT’s toll program director, Lucinda Broussard, explained. “The bridge doesn’t happen. Right now, we are $510 million annually short for maintenance, which means right now we cannot do anything else. There is no innovation happening. There are no upgrades.”
Broussard said Oregon faces a $510 million annual shortfall in road maintenance and repair funds and estimated that, by 2040, Portland households will spend an average of 69 hours a year in traffic.
“That’s 69 hours of yours and my time spent in congestion and not with our families or doing things that we need to do,” she said.
But despite the insistence of ODOT officials that toll revenue is “critical” to realize the needed upgrades, both residents and elected officials were skeptical of the need, citing the gas tax, state and county road maintenance fees and the recently passed federal infrastructure bill that is expected to pump at least $5 billion into state transportation projects.
Despite hosting Wednesday’s event, Chair Tootie Smith made it clear that neither she nor her colleagues on the Board of Commissioners were endorsing the tolling plan.
“We believe it will have a disproportionate and detrimental effect on Clackamas County residents, businesses and visitors,” she stated in her welcoming remarks.
Wednesday’s event was only the first in a planned series of town halls the county plans to host to discuss the tolling issue. A similar event is in the works for early 2022.
Despite the purported benefits to traffic flow and safety, tolling remains a deeply unpopular proposition for most residents. ODOT conducted a lengthy survey last year, and most of the 4,600 responses expressed “strong opposition to tolling in general or to the specifics of the I-205 Toll Project,” officials later said.
And, at a presentation in September, ODOT officials alarmed city leaders with modeling that showed the tolling plans could spike traffic on Highway 99E through Canby by as much as 40%.
The tolls will run electronically, with sensors reading a small transponder attached to the windshield and bill a pre-paid account. If a vehicle doesn’t have a transponder, a camera will capture the car’s license plate, and the registered owner will receive an invoice in the mail.
ODOT says the program will use variable-rate tolls to manage congestion, meaning tolls will change throughout the day, with higher rates at peak hours.
The transportation authority is currently conducting an environmental review phase, which also includes assessing the impacts tolling will have by diverting interstate traffic onto secondary roads and highways.
It is also assessing whether improved reliability on I-205 will make highway bus service a viable option to improve the limited public transportation options between West Linn, Oregon City and the I-5 corridor.
ODOT expects lane closures to occur for two weeks in the summer and fall of 2022, 2023 and 2024. More lane closures may also be necessary when ODOT constructs a sound wall on the Oregon City side of the river in 2024.
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