Senator Bill Kennemer, Republican from Oregon City, decried a party-line vote by the Oregon Legislature’s Emergency Board last week that he said approved $333 million in new bonding debt to pay for Interstate 205 improvements.
Kennemer said the plan relies heavily on paying for the bonds with freeway tolls, which more than 70% of Oregonians oppose. Kennemer expressed concern that the vote ignored the reality that the costs of commuting to work, school and household errands are breaking family budgets.
“I have consistently opposed tolling because it targets my constituents around Interstate 205,” Kennemer said in a statement. “A majority of Clackamas residents have to drive out of the county for work and to access health care. To ask them to shoulder the burden of this plan’s costs is patently unfair.”
He went on to call freeway tolls a “regressive tax on poor and working members of our communities.”
Kennemer, who does not serve on the E-board, said he would have voted against bond funding backed by freeway toll revenues.
Kennemer also expressed concern that the Legislature and ODOT have failed to have meaningful conversations about other options to build freeway infrastructure and looking to other funding sources besides the unpopular tolling plan.
“It’s shocking that we would have this vote in the summer, when we’re not in session, and when the public and the media were generally unaware that such a huge budget expenditure would pass without a full vote of the legislature,” Kennemer said.
“We should not be charging ahead to raise taxes on working-class Oregonians who drive at a time when gas prices are at record-high with no signs of coming down any time soon. To approve more bonded debt while interest rates are skyrocketing and a recession is looming — it’s simply irresponsible governance.”
Kennemer said he will continue to support voters having the opportunity to vote on freeway tolls. U.S. Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat, has also publicly stated that freeway tolls are unfair to working Oregonians.
“We need to have transportation infrastructure that works, but our solutions must be fair and affordable,” Kennemer said. “We can and must do better.”
In an email, state officials pushed back on Kennemer’s claims, saying the E-board’s action simply gave ODOT approval to apply for a federal grant to fund the I-205 improvements — not to spend state dollars.
“The emergency board did not approve tolling, they did not approve bond authority against toll revenues, and they did not approve the project,” ODOT Public Affairs Specialist Jenny Cherrytree said in the email.
“This vote approved ODOT’s request to submit a federal grant application to reduce the project’s overall financial reliance on tolls. A yes vote meant a pathway to potentially reduce the amount we’ll need to toll in order to complete the I-205 Improvements Project.”
The improvements include seismic upgrades to the Abernethy Bridge, making it the first seismically resilient interstate bridge over the Willamette — and a potential lifeline in the event of a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake.
ODOT said the federal grant will help fund the second phase of the project to upgrade or reconstruct a total of eight bridges along this stretch of I-205 to be seismically resilient and to add a third to the only remaining two-lane section of I-205.
The move is anticipated to reduce crashes and cut daily congestion by more than four and a half hours, significantly addressing one of the worst bottlenecks in the state of Oregon, which sees more than 100,000 vehicles passing through each day.
The state has repeatedly insisted it has no choice but to move forward with plans to add tolling to its two interstates in the next five years, with the first wave planned for I-205 at the Abernethy Bridge in the vicinity of Oregon City and West Linn.
The fees there are expected to take effect as early as 2024 — despite the fact the proposals have been deeply unpopular among both the general public and state and elected officials.
Online portals the state set up to collect feedback attracted nearly 5,000 comments — most of them in opposition — and a presentation last September stunned the Canby City Council when ODOT representatives shared projections showing tolls could spike traffic on Highway 99E by up to 40%.
ODOT says it is still studying two tolling alternatives — with one of the alternatives being “no tolling.” A final decision by the Federal Highway Administration, in cooperation with ODOT, is expected sometime this year.
The tolling proposal would add gantries to both Abernethy and the Tualatin River Bridge, with the amount split between two locations. ODOT says the earliest tolls could begin is in 2024.
ODOT’s Regional Mobility Pricing Project will toll the rest of I-205 along with I-5 from the Interstate Bridge at the Columbia River to the Boone Bridge in Wilsonville.
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.
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