The Oregon Department of Transportation recently invited the public to opine on the use of congestion pricing to improve the flow of traffic on the state’s vital highways: I-5 and I-205 in Portland. The state hopes to ease the volume of traffic on freeways, highways, and bridges in the gem of Oregon, known for around-the-clock rush hour. That’s right; traffic has officially gotten so bad that we are now considering congestion pricing to alleviate one of Portland’s greatest headaches.

This past December, Portland City Council and Mayor Ted Wheeler directed the Bureau of Transportation to study congestion pricing to see how using tolls on select portions of the city’s roads and bridges could reduce some of the congestion that is plaguing the city. ODOT recently hosted a series of open house events to receive public input. Residents were able to voice their opinions at several local events. If you missed out, you may still be able to submit comments and questions to the project team or submit feedback online.

ODOT is considering several configurations of congestion pricing while Keep Oregon Moving is tasked with developing a proposal for value pricing on I-205 and I-5 from the northern state line to the junction of the two freeways south of Tualatin. An example of value pricing includes priced lanes, which give drivers the option of paying a premium to use a particular lane. Another option would be to price all lanes.

How does congestion pricing work?

Congestion pricing sets a toll on specific sections of roads that fluctuates based on the demand for those roads. At rush hour, when there is the highest demand, these tolls would charge drivers the highest price to use the roads. The goal is to get people to use the roads at less congested times of day or to use other methods of transportation, like public transportation or bicycling. By charging to use previously free roads, the idea is that only people who truly need to use the roads at those times will be on them. You can read more about congestion pricing here.

What cities benefit from congestion pricing?

Several cities around the world already use congestion pricing to ease traffic flow and improve air quality. Although tolls are an unpopular political move, they have already proven to reduce congestion in major cities.

London

Perhaps the most well-known congestion pricing system in the Western World is London’s. The city charges drivers about $15 USD per day to travel within the city’s 8-square mile central district. The system began in 2003 and has significantly reduced gridlock, although in recent years congestion has still increased. Still, Londoners claim that without having the congestion pricing system, things would be much worse.

San Diego

Sunny San Diego was the first American city to implement value pricing back in 1998. Single-occupant vehicles on I-15 pay a per-trip fee each time they use the I-15 High Occupancy Vehicle Lanes. Tolls vary in real time with the degree of traffic demand on these lanes. Fees rise or fall in $0.25 increments as frequently as every six minutes to maintain freely-flowing traffic. This pricing scheme has generated millions in revenue that goes back to support the roads.

Ultimately, cities do benefit from congestion pricing, but it’s typically a last resort. Although ODOT and PBOT have considered alternatives, nothing is as effective long-term as congestion pricing to relieve motor vehicle traffic. Research has shown that merely constructing new roads or expanding current roads simply increases the demand for roads, which in turn boosts traffic. If Portlanders truly want to recover from worsened driving conditions, they may need to bite the bullet on paying a few cents to use the roads at their peak hours.

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