Being stuck in traffic is not a feel-good moment. The Oregon Department of Transportation has asked for public input on a way to help: toll roads.
Toll roads could lead to more feel-good or feel-awful moments. It’s all in how ODOT does it. They could mean more smoothly flowing traffic on smoother roads or special “Lexus lanes” for those with money.
The Legislature ordered ODOT to consider adding tolls on some stretches of interstates 5 and 205 near Portland. ODOT is supposed to use tolls not only to raise money but also as a tool to change behavior. And if it takes hold in Portland, it may spread across the state.
Toll roads can be good because they charge the very people who use the roads. But how ODOT plans to spend the money raised and how it plans to use the tolls to change behavior will have to be watched carefully.
Portland has a heck of a traffic congestion problem. ODOT says drivers in the Portland metro area experienced an increase in delays of almost 23 percent between 2013 and 2015. Stretches of I-5 and I-205 can be the worst. During peak traffic, vehicles crawl along at 10 miles per hour, while at other times they flow along at 60.
ODOT wouldn’t add a bunch of toll booths. It says commuter vehicles might have transponders. There could also be license plate technology that snaps a picture and mails out a bill to a vehicle’s registered owner. Out-of-state and out-of-area drivers would have to pay just like everybody else. No rates have been set. Any plan would have to get federal approval.
The state can’t spend money raised with highway fees any way it likes. Under the state constitution, the money must be spent on road projects. But that can mean many different things — roads, bike lanes, routes for pedestrians and transit improvements. The state should spend the majority of the money raised by these toll roads on roads.
ODOT is also considering two models of the behavior-changing tolls — priced lanes or priced roadways. With priced lanes, a driver could opt to pay extra for access to a special lane that would presumably have much less traffic or opt to pay nothing for the regular lane. That could mean building a new special lane or modifying the existing roadway. Critics sometimes call these Lexus lanes.
With priced roadways, all traffic will be charged for traveling on a particular stretch of roadway. A preliminary ODOT analysis concluded that priced roadways will have the highest level of congestion relief and would be less expensive to implement. They also don’t create the unseemly appearance of lanes for haves and others for the have nots.
Toll roads can make sense but don’t divert the money collected away from roads or turn Oregon into a state of Lexus lanes.