Is Congestion Pricing the Solution to Portland’s Traffic Woes?

For our latest Real Talk series, we’re digging into what Portland can learn from the Bay Area’s successes and struggles with growth, starting with a reader’s question about tolling:

Does the Bay Area have toll roads and how’s that working out? I hate the idea of toll roads because I’ve seen them abused in certain big cities by private and foreign investors. I know Portland is strongly considering this as an option to free up traffic. Many are for it, but I don’t think they’re looking at the bigger picture. —Mickey Seiler

For context, the average Portlander now spends 50 hours a year stuck in rush-hour traffic, and in 2018, the Oregon Transportation Commission signed off on a proposal to start tolling sections of I-5 and I-205 through Portland.

The details are TBD, and the plan still needs federal approval but if implemented, it’s expected to raise $60 million or more per year, which could be used to improve public transit and build more green infrastructure.

That’s one reason why transit and climate advocates are urging the Oregon Department of Transportation to ditch its plans to widen I-5 through the Rose Quarter and instead use congestion pricing to address traffic.

Congestion pricing is a tolling strategy that discourages people from driving during peak hours by increasing the toll price during rush hours.

Supporters say congestion pricing would do more to reduce traffic than widening the freeway, but for now, ODOT officials are talking about congestion pricing as a complement to the Rose Quarter highway expansion, not a replacement.

So with that debate as the backdrop, here’s what I learned about how tolling works in the Bay Area.

Why the Bay Area Is Raising Its Tolls

Unlike Portlanders, Bay Area drivers are no strangers to paying tolls.

The Golden Gate Bridge and seven other bridges in the region charge up to $7 to cross them, and four highways have tolled “express lanes” for drivers who are willing to pay.

The tolls haven’t solved the Bay Area’s traffic woes it’s still the eighth-most congested urban area in the U.S. but that says more about the region’s population growth than about the effectiveness of its tolling strategy.

Since 2010, the Bay Area’s population has grown by more than 600,000 people, while its reliance on cars has dropped more slowly.

Policy analysts argue that changing more people’s behavior will require increasing toll prices, and many Bay Area residents seem to be on board.

Last year, a proposal to raise bridge toll rates by $3 earned support from 55 percent of voters, including a majority in seven of nine Bay Area counties.

Meanwhile, the transit authority in San Francisco has commissioned a study to explore congestion pricing and determine how the Bay Area might follow in the footsteps of cities like London, Singapore, Milan, and New York, which now charge drivers to enter the city center.

These congestion pricing schemes have generally faced fierce resistance when they’re first proposed, but there’s evidence that they really do reduce congestion – and that they become more popular over time.

In Stockholm, for instance, a congestion pricing pilot in 2007 helped reduce traffic in the urban core by 20 percent, and after the pricing scheme became permanent, it eventually earned support from more than two-thirds of residents.

Will Portlanders Warm Up to Tolls?

Road tolling has historically been an unpopular idea in Portland, to put it mildly.

In 2017, the Oregon Department of Transportation asked local residents what they’d like the agency to do about congestion, and only 3 percent said to toll the city’s highways, compared to 51 percent who said to expand and improve them.

Those numbers reflect a stubborn belief that cities can build their way out bad traffic, despite mounting evidence that they can’t.

But Portland’s resistance to tolling may have other causes. As Mickey pointed out in his question, cities around the country have seen tolling projects run amok, especially when there’s private investment involved.

In Indiana, for example, the state had to pay a private company $450,000 because it temporarily waived toll payments on that company’s highway. (The fact that the toll waiver happened during a flooding emergency didn’t matter.)

We probably won’t know exactly how Portlanders feel about tolling I-5 and I-205 until more of the plan’s details are released, but the latest figures suggest that residents are at least warming up to the idea.

According to a recent poll, more than 48 percent of local residents now “strongly” or “somewhat” support tolling highways up 3 points from 2017.