I WAS READY to be underwhelmed as Portland City Council took up a resolution blessing tolling on city roadways last week. Instead, I was surprised.
As the Mercury and others wrote before the hearing, a frenetic buzz surrounding the resolution, crafted by Transportation Commissioner Dan Saltzman, had recently soured to disappointment.
The buzz: Saltzman telegraphed in August that he wanted to send a message to state transportation leaders to toll I-5 (and I-205) before moving forward with a $450 million plan to widen it. By employing “congestion pricing” before breaking ground, he believed, the state could see if the expensive extra lanes were even needed.
The disappointment: The resolution [PDF] Saltzman and Mayor Ted Wheeler wound up proposing didn’t even mention the I-5 Rose Quarter project, while at the same time essentially forcing city bureaus to help the Oregon Department of Transportation with its long-cherished designs to widen the freeway. The city was staking out its support for congestion pricing with no guarantee that it would come before the megaproject began.
Saltzman addressed this weakened stance early on in the hearing.
“Let me be clear: In my opinion, congestion pricing should happen in these corridors before any shovels break ground,” Saltzman said. “[But] as staff and this council dug further into the project... it became clear that this is much larger than I-5 and I-205. This is about how Portland responds to our growth and success.”
As expected, opponents tried—and failed—to press their point about tolling first. Economist Joe Cortright had perhaps the line of the day, saying, “What this project amounts to is essentially the ritual sacrifice of half a billion dollars to the freeway gods, or the world’s most expensive piece of performance art.”
What was surprising, though, was how much further than highway tolling Portland appears prepared to go in order to battle the city’s ever-worsening congestion. By virtue of the I-5 project forcing the issue, transportation and planning officials now have council’s blessing to pursue a huge array of strategies for curbing demand of Portland roadways. And they sound ready to pounce.
“Road use is valuable and when roads are free, too many people use them,” Transportation Director Leah Treat said during the hearing. “We really need additional strategies and this is why we believe road charging is so important.”
Those strategies could include charging vehicles to enter the dense city center, as London has famously done. Or tolling bridges. Or increasing the price of parking to control demand. Or lots of other stuff. Money raised could then be reinvested in improving transit service and making it easier to bike and walk around.
These policies have been shown not only to slash congestion in cities around the world, but to reduce carbon emissions—both goals the City of Portland has embraced.
Those goals don’t square well with a massive highway-widening project, and it’s bizarre that council is deaf to that project’s logical flaws. But it was also hard not to think at the end of last week’s hearing that the city had taken an important step forward.