The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) has been relying on plans to toll Portland-area highways in order to pay for large capital projects on its roster. In particular, ODOT has counted on future tolling revenue while planning the I-5 expansion at the Rose Quarter in Portland and the second phase of its plan to widen parts of I-205 through Clackamas County, which the agency estimates will cost at least $1.3 billion and $550 million, respectively. 

But after Gov. Tina Kotek's recent decree that ODOT must pause toll collection efforts until at least 2026, the state transportation agency has been left in a lurch. A draft financial strategy report released Monday by ODOT's Urban Mobility Office lays bare just how much Kotek's tolling moratorium will impact ODOT's ability to expand freeways in the Portland Metro area.

Due to funding constraints, the draft plan recommends ODOT indefinitely postpone the second phase of construction on I-205 in Clackamas County and effectively pause work on the I-5 Rose Quarter freeway expansion in Portland until the agency can find the funds to pay for it. 

A finance plan for ODOT's Urban Mobility Strategy was created, upon Kotek's request, to lay out an updated finance plan for Portland-area projects that ODOT was relying on tolling revenue to fund. Per an ODOT press release, the report "shows there is a real impact to the projects from their increased scope and costs paired now with a delay and less reliability in available toll proceeds." 

"To account for that impact, we will need to manage our risks and be more conservative in our spending," the press release states. 

The report states that multiple key factors have changed, forcing ODOT to reassess its financial strategy. On top of the tolling moratorium, ODOT also notes the "scope of various elements of projects have changed," particularly with regard to the I-5 Rose Quarter expansion, which has ballooned in cost over the past several years. The report also points to "very high inflation in highway construction across the nation" as another factor putting financial pressure on the agency.

For ODOT critics, who have long been speaking out against the environmental and financial impacts of freeway widening plans on I-5 and I-205, the announcement came as welcome news. Transportation reform advocacy organization No More Freeways (NMF) said its members were"delighted" to learn about the project postponements.

"These are both massive victories for any Oregonian who enjoys clean air, safer streets, a hospitable planet, and fiscal responsibility from their state government," NMF co-founder Chris Smith said in a press release. 

ODOT maintains the I-5 and I-205 projects still have value. The agency laid out potential funding streams for construction down the line. Pertaining to I-205, the report states the cost could be covered by tolls on the I-205 corridor—once Kotek's moratorium is lifted—or future state and federal resources from the Statewide Transportation Improvement Plan, or via grant funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Regarding the I-5 Rose Quarter project, the draft plan indicates ODOT will ask the Oregon Transportation Commission to assist with making the project "competitive for future funding opportunities and eventual construction." Earlier this year, ODOT was denied federal funding for Rose Quarter construction from the USDOT's Reconnecting Communities grant program. 

While the agency has tried to identify ways to bring the two major projects to fruition, critics predict phase two of the I-205 expansion is as good as dead—and the Rose Quarter project is flailing, too.

"ODOT is clearly walking away from phase two of I-205," NMF co-founder and ODOT watchdog Joe Cortright told the Mercury. "They have no idea how they're going to pay for it [and the Rose Quarter project]. It shows that what the critics have been saying about these projects has been absolutely right." 

Cortright and other ODOT watchdogs have pushed for the agency to conduct a thorough Environmental Impact Statement for the I-5 Rose Quarter project to study "alternatives to expensive freeway expansion that reduce congestion, while bringing clean air and justice to the Albina neighborhood." They say now is the perfect time for ODOT to do just that.

One alternative could be a congestion pricing plan, which would charge highway users a small fee in order to decrease single-occupancy vehicle usage. Proponents of congestion pricing say money generated from the efforts could fund public and active transportation infrastructure to offer alternatives to driving.

Members of the Urban Mobility Office will present the finance plan to the Oregon Transportation Committee at a special meeting on Wednesday, June 28. From there, they'll submit the plan to Kotek by July 1. Members of the public can comment on the plan through  4:00 p.m. on Tuesday, June 27.