A plan by the Oregon Department of Transportation to implement a toll on Interstate 205 to pay for improvements in Clackamas County received a key procedural approval Thursday after the Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation voted to amend two regional transportation plans.
JPACT’s vote was to amend both the Regional Transportation Plan and the Metropolitan Transportation Improvement Program, two federally-mandated documents that needed a formal amendment for the tolling project to move forward.
The yes vote now sends the proposal to the Metro Council, which must also approve the plan for it to move forward.
Two Metro councilors serving on JPACT, Christine Lewis and Juan Carlos González, voted against the tolling proposal. The vote came after an intense discussion among JPACT members about a number of topics, including equity, trust and how the I-205 tolling plan fits into the broader picture of plans for a regional congestion pricing program.
The Metro councilors were joined by JPACT members from Clackamas County and Portland, who also voted against the proposal and expressed concerns about traffic diversion and a lack of transparency in ODOT’s decision-making process.
ODOT officials said the plan is an important step in paying for long-promised improvements to I-205 in Clackamas County, including a seismic retrofit of the Abernethy Bridge over the Willamette River in Oregon City and a congestion relief effort between that bridge and Stafford Road. However, Clackamas County leaders have been concerned about whether the tolls, which are proposed as a way to pay for the bridge improvements and widening plan, would cause drivers to divert off the freeway and onto local roads, like Highway 99E through Canby and Oregon City, or Willamette Falls Drive through West Linn.
Lewis, whose Metro Council district includes most of urban Clackamas County, lives in West Linn's Willamette neighborhood, where drivers already use Willamette Falls Drive to avoid the congestion on I-205. She said ODOT had made improvements to the plan to address diversion and equity – but not enough to earn her vote.
“Regional partnership was very strong on this, and everyone came together to improve this proposal," she said. “The overall package is better because it now includes language that forces ODOT to spend money on local streets to which traffic from I-205 is already diverting. They will also be required to invest in local communities, make sure the project is in sync with other congestion pricing efforts, and they must now commit to prioritizing safety and equity.”
But, she said, she’s still concerned about how the tolling proposal for I-205 will fit into efforts to create a regional congestion pricing plan.
"It makes no sense to place undue burden on communities in Clackamas without syncing the timeline up to the regional system we are trying to build," Lewis said.
Clackamas County Commissioner Paul Savas expressed concerns over including language that opens the door to tolling on all lanes of the interstate.
“I’m inclined to think that we will put more people at risk,” he said. “I don’t think we will accomplish, and perhaps even worsen our climate goals, and frankly I think there are some serious economic impacts that have not been considered.”
Joining the coalition against the proposal was Jo Ann Hardesty, the Portland City Commissioner responsible for that city’s Bureau of Transportation. She said the past month “has been wonderful communication with ODOT,” but expressed concerns about ODOT’s record when it comes to listening and working closely with local communities.
“I still see a reluctance to do anything different that you’ve ever done,” she said. “I push back on the notion that we should trust you, because there is nothing in your history that proves that we should trust ODOT to actually do the right thing when it comes to prioritizing other modes of transportation, when it comes to being a real partner in our communities. I’m not clear that ODOT has listened at all about the major concerns in Clackamas or the major concerns that folks in my community have about how much it’s going to cost them to actually travel in a city where they’ve been pushed out to the edges”
But ODOT officials said the plan had made significant changes to address concerns about diversion mitigation and the impacts of the plan on local communities. The plan to move forward includes commitments from ODOT to elevate the role of local policymakers and stakeholders, center equity and process in outcomes, increase transit and multimodal transportation options, and provide fiscal transparency to build trust and understanding.
That was enough to get support of Milwaukie City Councilor Kathy Hyzy, who had previously been opposed to the plan.
“So much of this is stepping out on faith and deciding where to take risks,” she said. “At this point I think we’re just going to have to step out in faith that ODOT is going to do its best. We are relying on ODOT to do what it is saying at these tables; that is going to be critical, and we will be watching. And in future votes we will be paying close attention to see that ODOT has done not just its level best, but has pulled out all the stops to get these two things as closely aligned as is extra-humanly possible because the cities and the region do not want to be left hanging when it comes to tolling.”