Tolling: Clark County lawmakers testify before committee

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Members of the Oregon Transportation Commission (OTC) are currently coming up with a recommendation for tolling Portland-area interstates following a nearly four-hour meeting with more than 40 testimonies on July 12. Dozens of individuals testified including several representatives of Southwest Washington.

The meeting followed a recommendation made by the Portland Area Value Pricing Advisory Committee which, after half of a dozen meetings over eight months, has come up with a tolling scheme they feel will work the best.

ODOT Region 1 Project Manager Mandy Putney presented the committee recommendations. They would toll all lanes of Interstate 5 from Going Street to Multnomah Boulevard as well as all lanes of the Abernethy Bridge on I-205. Putney noted the recommendation also involved more study on adjacent parts of the interstate to the already-planned tolled areas to see feasibility of expanding the scheme to those areas.

That limited tolling would only be a stepping stone to a more comprehensive tolling scheme. Putney said committee members generally accepted a two-tier approach which would see implementation of tolls on all of the two interstates in the project area, from the Washington/Oregon state line south to the junction of I-5 and I-205.

More than a dozen elected officials provided testimony including five from Washington. Those officials’ reception of tolling was varied, going from outright opposition to acceptance.

Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle is a member of the value pricing committee and voted in opposition of the tolling schemes. But she was accepting of the overall goals to mitigate impacts to motorists, in part due to the addition of language that would make sure Washington residents were included in those efforts.

“Because the Oregon Transportation Commission engages so many different people, sometimes we forget that Southwest Washington is part of this system,” McEnerny-Ogle said. 

Three Clark County state Representatives testified as well, offering the most polarized opinions on value pricing of elected officials speaking. Rep. Sharon Wylie, R-Vancouver, felt that tolling was inevitable but that her constituents, many of whom commute to Portland for work, would be willing to pay tolls if it helped their commute and/or if they could possibly deduct the charges from their income tax. 

“We don’t want to have it be unfair,” she said.

Wylie, the vice-chair of the House Transportation Committee, stressed the importance of options for commuters such as a robust public transit. That sentiment was not shared with fellow state Rep. Vicki Kraft, R-Vancouver.

 Kraft questioned whether the demand for increased mass transit options was there. She said that TriMet and C-TRAN “would be filled to the gills” with users already if that were the case. 

“There are already options today with transit, et cetera, but our commuters are demanding car infrastructure,” Kraft said. 

But both Kraft and Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, were notably against tolling. Kraft briefly mentioned a letter Portland City Council sent to the OTC prior to the meeting stating their preference for outright tolling across the entire scope of the project area, something to which many in Clark County are vehemently opposed.

Harris talked about the 40,000 constituents in his and Kraft’s district, many of whom commute to Portland for work. He added that he himself was one of those, spending 15 years as an executive for a paint company.

“I feel like this is rather punitive, to be quite frank,” Harris remarked about the proposed tolls. He said as a legislator he was not one wanting to tax Oregonians in Washington and felt there were other avenues that would be more equitable.

Kraft said the possibility of value pricing was chief among her constituents’ concerns.

“This is the number-one topic, transportation, and tolling is right at the top of that list,” Kraft said. Like Wylie, she touched on the income tax Washington commuters were paying — funds that currently cannot be used for transportation in Oregon — saying that something needed to be changed to allow those dollars to pay for the infrastructure most used by those taxpayers.

Ridgefield city councilor and chair of the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council (RTC) Ron Onslow said that it was the RTC’s position that value pricing revenue should be used in replacing the aging Interstate 5 bridge. 

Wylie also touted bridge replacement, noting that she sits on a committee created in 2017 by legislation she sponsored that seeks to meet that end. That committee ostensibly would have members from both states but has stalled due to lack of interest from lawmakers south of the Columbia.

Oregon Transportation Commissioner Sean O’Hollaren said that it was his understanding that the commission would be revisiting bridge replacement though it was not priority number one.

“I think there is a point where we will be having bridge discussions,” O’Hollaren said. “Maybe it’s when it falls into the river, but I’m hoping we can come back to it before that.” 

Moving forward, the OTC will next meet Aug. 16 to provide direction to the Oregon Department of Transportation on a proposal to bring forth to the Federal Highway Administration. ODOT will come back to the commission in November for their approval before finally sending it to the FHWA by the Dec. 31 deadline.

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