The Oregon Legislative Assembly pulled off its biggest achievement of the 2017 session: it approved a huge transportation bill (House Bill 2017) that seeks to raise $5.3 billion over the next ten years. By introducing tolls on interstate highways, new taxes, and raising current transportation taxes and fees, the state hopes to raise enough revenue to repair its failing infrastructure, expand public transit, and reduce highway traffic congestion.

The bill’s approval is a boon to legislators who have tried to pass a revenue-producing package to strengthen the state’s infrastructure two years in a row with little success. Crumbling roads and bridges put lives at risk and are at high risk for causing mass destruction in the event of an earthquake. By taking somewhat drastic, out-of-the-box measures, the state expects to meet its goal.

Some of these measures are attracting more attention than others. To the average commuter, they are all generally unwelcome expenses.

New Taxes

Part of the package outlines tax and fee increases such as:

  • New sales taxes on cars and bikes
  • Increased gas tax
  • Increased vehicle registration fees
  • A -cent gas tax and $15 vehicle registration fee in the Portland metro area
  • A 0.1% employer payroll tax to pay for public transit projects

Upon implementation, Oregon would see its first tax on bike sales, a 3% tax. Used and new vehicle sales would also see a 0.75% tax.

Interstate Tolls on the Horizon

A central component of the hefty 298-page bill is the proposal to build a toll system on I-5 and I-205 beginning at the Oregon-Washington border, up through Portland, and until the highways connect in Wilsonville. The bill would create a transportation commission that would seek federal approval to add tolls to the state’s most congested highways: I-5 and I-205. It could take until December 31, 2018 to receive such approval, upon which construction can begin.

It remains unclear exactly what the toll system would look like, but we do know that the tolls would work on a value pricing system, meaning that the rates would vary by the level of congestion and the time of day. Value pricing can be established in many different ways, including constructing high-occupancy tolling lanes, setting variable pricing on bridges, or simply converting existing lanes into toll lanes. Commuters traveling during rush hour traffic would presumably pay more to use the roads than other travelers. Travelers may also have the option of paying extra to use express lanes.

Implementing a rush hour toll is a popular solution among politicians who have promised to cut down on the city’s congestion. By raising the rates at rush hour, those who do not absolutely need to be traveling at that time are more likely to travel at other times when there are fewer cars on the road.

Revenue from these tolls would go toward widening I-205 from Stafford Road to Oregon City and replacing old bridges, as well as several other transportation projects. Toll roads could even pay for some of the Rose Quarter mega project worth upwards of $400 million which seeks to widen the highway between Interstate 84 and I-205.  

When will Toll Roads Open?

The bill anticipates Governor Kate Brown’s signature. After that, it must be approved by the Federal Highway Administration. It could take several years for commuters to start seeing tolls on the state’s busiest interstates, as transportation officials would need to purchase millions of dollars’ worth of equipment to run a modern tolling program.

Transportation Projects

HB 2017 lists specific transportation projects that could be funded with the revenue from added taxes and tolls. The bill seeks to add lanes to I-5 through the Rose Quarter, a project estimated to cost $338 million; fund improvements to the Abernethy Bridge on I-205, a $152 million project; widen I-205, at a cost of $188 million; add lanes to Route 217 in Oregon, for $98 million; as well as provide for dozens of smaller statewide projects.

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