Despite widespread opposition to the proposal by residents and local public officials alike, it appears that, for the Oregon Department of Transportation, the question is no longer if tolling will come to Interstate 205, but when.
In a recent email, ODOT officials said toll revenue is needed 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 the Abernethy Bridge the state’s first earthquake-ready highway bridge across the Willamette River.
ODOT is still studying tolling gantries at the Abernethy and Tualatin River bridges and says the earliest tolls could begin is in 2024. Though the Abernethy Bridge improvements are scheduled to begin construction next year, ODOT officials said tolling revenue could be used to pay back funds borrowed for the project.
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.
“We have worked with the I-205 community since 2017 and received strong support to construct project improvements,” ODOT said in the email. “Statewide, we’ve heard the need to remove this bottleneck.
“Without tolls and future roadway upgrades, the almost seven hours of daily congestion and safety risks will continue to grow as more people use the highway. Without action, diversion to local streets will also increase when I-205 has more stop-and-go traffic.”
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%.
“I’ll be honest with you: You’re dealing with a community that has a great deal of skepticism as to [your] real intent,” then-City Council President Tim Dale warned officials at the meeting.
“You’re dealing with a community that is going to look at your solution, which is to toll 205, as yet another example where Clackamas County is going to bear the cost of funds being diverted to Portland causes.”
Even a public comment portion of a recent Clackamas County Board of Commissioners meeting that was ostensibly about the governor’s latest mask and vaccine mandates featured several residents wishing to protest the state’s tolling scheme.
“I hear that the state and ODOT is trying to sneak in some tolling to our local roads, and I think it’s balderdash,” Jim Weaver said. “It’s just another gimmick. If the county needs money to fix roads, I’ll vote for it. But don’t get sucked in to letting ODOT toll a section and give you money and help you out, because it’s balderdash.
“They’re not going to do that. They’re going to do a section, then they’re going to raise it, and you and I are going to have a nightmare, coming and going to work. Just to go to Walmart’s going to cost me money. That’s just not right. I paid for those roads over the last 20-some years of my life.”
The county announced in April that they were taking a “values-based approach” to the tolling question, with a focus on equity, safety, a vibrant economy, health and active communities, climate action, disaster resilience, and the reliable movement of people and goods.
“We know people have concerns with tolls, and we are working to create a system that works for all the region’s travelers,” ODOT said this week. “Over the next year, ODOT will complete the required federal environmental analysis for the I-205 Toll Project and determine how a new toll system can be implemented equitably.”
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