Congestion Pricing and Congestion

By David Krogh

Portland area interstate highways, feeder streets, and even City streets have become more and more congested in recent years.

That suggests two very different, yet interrelated areas of discussion.

The first is how to alleviate heavy congestion on I-205, I-405 and I-84. This heavy traffic is putting Portland into the top twenty in the country of worst commutes and time lost in commuting on an annual basis.

The second is how to alleviate congestion on streets within the City and those that feed the interstate highways.

Increased urbanization concentrates density. Since people still need to navigate within a given area, planners and politicians are obligated to facilitate this transportation.

Since construction of new interstate highway lanes is often not a reasonable option, and because of a myriad of considerations including land purchases, existing development, funding, and emissions, one alternative is to provide congestion pricing (also called value pricing).

According to the Federal Highway Commission, congestion pricing is essentially a toll or fee applied to traffic to encourage drivers to either use other transportation modes or travel during off-peak hours. The money raised can be used for transportation or other projects.

Several types of pricing strategies exist. The more common are variable priced lanes (express lanes with varying tolls based on time of day), variable tolls on entire roadways (on all lanes), cordon charges (to drive within a certain area within a city), and area-wide charges (per mile charges on all roads within a congested area).

Seattle has been experimenting with congestion pricing for several years now on portions of I-405 and State Highway 167 with mixed results.

However, Seattle has decided to now look into congestion pricing for highways leading into Downtown while putting highway and transit improvements into place.

New York is looking at implementing congestion pricing into Manhattan to ease congestion and fund mass transit improvements. Existing systems in London, Stockholm and Singapore are being examined as models.

In London, congestion pricing has resulted in a drop in daytime traffic congestion by as much as forty-four percent.

Congestion pricing can be costly too, especially to low income workers, unless reductions are in place or lower cost public transit is provided.

Since the advent of congestion pricing, London has seen an increase in gentrification and an accompanying increase in housing prices implying reductions in congestion may create other costs.

Portland has been looking into congestion pricing too for portions of I-84 and I-5.

The Sightline Institute recommended congestion pricing instead of the proposed highway lane expansions near the Rose Quarter as other studies have indicated the potential for increased traffic use can be caused by lane expansions.

City Observatory has gone beyond just the connection of I-84 and I-5 and recommends congestion pricing be implemented along the entire length of I-5 within the City.

ODOT at this time, is planning on providing lane enhancements discussed previously, and is also looking into the concept of congestion pricing.

The City of Portland and Metro are both creating task forces to look into congestion pricing or street access fee establishment throughout the entire area.

Cascade Policy Institute (CPI) recently published a discussion of congestion pricing and impacts for citizens, favoring congestion pricing for highways with the stipulation that monies received are used for transportation purposes and not for other funds.

This has happened before in Portland with street maintenance funds being used for other purposes. Cascade seems to be the only organization attempting to bring attention to the issue of local and feeder street congestion.

Dr. Eric Fruits of the Cascade Policy Institute says, “While Portland-area policy makers give lip service to reducing congestion, the transportation policies they’ve put in place can only be described as congestion by design.

“‘Road diets’ such as lane reductions have choked off major arterials and sent drivers scurrying through sidestreets. Reduced speed limits have slowed traffic to a crawl in many areas. Speed bumps seem to be popping up faster than dandelions in spring.”

Problematic Portland transportation projects are very evident as well.

Examples in SE Portland include:  Foster Road’s Vision Zero project;  increased congestion at the intersections of SE 50th and Division and SE 50th and Hawthorne due to the closure of SE Lincoln to east/west traffic; and increased congestion at the intersection at SE 92nd and Foster Rd,

Retired traffic analyst Bret Keeler told The Southeast Examiner that instead of taking steps to provide for better traffic flows, Portland’s Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) tends to avoid the issue of traffic congestion by promoting transit or bicycle use instead of cars.

“Effective traffic circulation management and the promotion of transit use are both necessary to deal with local street congestion,” said Keeler.

City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly (who oversees Portland transportation bureau) recently said, “The city must take bold steps to try and get people out of their cars.”

CPI’s Dr. Fruits has indicated, “Politics has a way of turning good ideas into bad policies. It’s very likely Portland-area politics will turn the good theory of congestion pricing into the bad practice of punishing drivers.”

Congestion Pricing and Congestion

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