A green light for all congestion relief efforts

A green light for all congestion relief efforts

As the Portland-metro region grows, so does our collective congestion headache. That goes for cars, bikes, mass transit and freight. According to the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT), rush hour traffic now lasts six hours or more on some key Portland-area highways. This headache is poised to become a migraine if we don’t explore every congestion relief tool available. The Portland Business Alliance explored this topic in detail at the September Forum Breakfast.

In response to increasing congestion, our local leaders are grappling with how to best keep our city functional, with quality neighborhoods and other amenities that make Portland a desirable place to call home. At the same time, Portland has enjoyed consistent economic growth in recent years that must continue so all residents can find,  retain and access stable, family-wage jobs.

Congestion is a fundamental workforce challenge, and a strong, balanced multimodal transportation system in the Portland-metro region can support our quality of life, promote economic competitiveness and provide access to jobs for all of our region’s workers.

The good news is that our state and local policymakers understand congestion is a serious, fundamental barrier to reaching our shared goals of addressing climate change, creating livable communities, and expanding national and worldwide trade.

So what’s being done to solve this statewide problem? In 2017, the Alliance worked with legislators in Salem to support the passage of HB 2017, a historic statewide $5.3 billion transportation package, also known as Keep Oregon Moving. Among other projects, Keep Oregon Moving directed ODOT to add auxiliary lanes in key locations on Interstate 5, Interstate 205 and OR 217. Various active transportation and public transit projects were also included.

To pay for the long list of projects, legislators increased the state gas tax, as well as vehicle registration and title fees, and levied a tax on new bicycles, light vehicle dealers, as well as a one-tenth of 1 percent payroll tax to go toward public transportation.

These signature projects will begin to take shape in the years to come, and will hopefully mitigate the congestion growing in the Portland-metro region. However, there are other tools in the toolbox besides expanding our road and highway capacity. For example, Keep Oregon Moving also directed Portland-area policymakers to evaluate the concept of value pricing.

Value pricing would reduce traffic by requiring motorists to pay a small toll to travel during peak times on select area freeways. But there are many questions that need to be answered before this happens. For instance, where should the tolls begin, and where should they end? Will this strategy push too much traffic onto local streets? How can we ensure low-income and other transportation-challenged Portlanders aren’t further priced out of the region? And how would the funds be dispersed?

The Portland Region Value Pricing Advisory Committee was formed late last year to look at various pricing proposals and to ultimately, make a recommendation to the Oregon Transportation Commission. The Alliance had a seat at the table, advocating for our more than 1,900 member businesses and their employees by encouraging an equitable, comprehensive, data-driven pricing strategy.

Earlier this summer, after several public meetings, the advisory group recommended pricing all lanes on I-5 between Southwest Multnomah Boulevard and Northeast Going Street. The group also recommended moving forward with tolls on I-205 near the Abernathy Bridge and Stafford Road. The Alliance supported this recommendation, which is now being reviewed by the Oregon Transportation Commission.

While progress is clearly being made, many questions remain about how our transportation system will accommodate the growth of the region. More than 100 people move to the Portland-metro area each day, most of them in cars. Wildly popular ride-sharing services are disrupting the traffic forecasts of previous years and changing our understanding of commuter behavior – and lest we forget – scooter sharing has surprised us all. Other alternative modes are being explored including river transit, which offers a viable solution to our city’s residents and the more than 50,000 people commuting in from Vancouver every day. Federal funding is far from certain, and as electric and other fuel-efficient vehicles become more affordable, gas tax revenues become less predictable.

Here at the Alliance, we have always advocated for a “D) all of the above” approach to transportation issues. Our transportation system is in distress, and businesses and residents are feeling the effects of slower commutes and delivery times. Every congestion relief strategy available to us must be considered, whether it be value pricing, capacity expansion or something in between.