Congestion Pricing

By Don MacGillivray

Road congestion has almost reached the breaking point. Rush hour traffic is terrible on many freeways and arterials. Unless a major solution is found, the situation can only get worse given the expected in-migration of residents moving to the Portland metropolitan area.

There are no simple solutions. Widening roadways is financially prohibitive and would just attract more traffic, as has been shown by the experience of Southern California. 

Highway professionals believe the best and perhaps the only solution is to pay for the increased use of the roads. This is commonly called Congestion Pricing and is defined as: charges to drive that vary depending on the level of congestion and its location. 

In addition to addressing congestion, any plan will need to address reducing greenhouse gas emissions while creating an equitable transportation system.

Whenever this is mentioned, people hate the idea of paying taxes to use the roads, but the additional time caused by road congestion is a tax paid for with your precious time and limited patience. To pay for a fast moving road trip to and from work could be more efficient and pleasurable.

Transportation is another utility. The individual with a car pays for its operation, so paying to use roads is not unreasonable. 

It is a public responsibility to maintain roads that are efficient and it is only fair the costs must be paid for by the users. 

Singapore and Hong Kong have been using congestion pricing for forty years. London and Stockholm have had success with this idea for over ten years. Many other cities around the world and in the United States are considering it.

Seattle has even worse traffic problems than Portland and they have been studying congestion pricing for several years. 

In 2017, the time spent in Seattle traffic is estimated to have cost $5 billion in lost productivity, more than the entire budget of the City of Portland. 

May of this year that city released a report titled, The Seattle Congestion Pricing Study which shares a comprehensive view of their situation. 

This is preliminary to the public outreach involved in trying to decide how to implement an acceptable program. When the public was asked about congestion pricing seventy percent responded they were against it.

In 2006, Cordon Pricing was implemented in Stockholm, Sweden. A pricing zone around the city center was created where vehicles are charged to enter it during specific times, using license-plate recognition technology.

When congestion pricing was imposed in Stockholm seventy percent of the voters tried to repeal it, but after it was put in place, their congestion was reduced by twenty percent and then seventy percent approved of it. A program similar to this is in effect in London, England.

Each city implementing congestion pricing seems to have a different way to do it. 

A few other variations include charging to use: car pool lanes, the entire freeway, and various geographic areas at specific times. One of the problems with charging to use a freeway is how drivers will avoid fees by cutting through local streets making them overly congested.

A great deal of gentrification has taken place here in Portland and this requires people with low incomes and families to commute longer distances, thereby further increasing the use of major roadways. 

Sixty-five percent of low and medium income drivers will find congestion pricing a hardship, so about thirty percent of fees are expected to be returned to these drivers.

It is expected that public transit will become faster and that its ridership will grow. 

Over fifty hours of bus service could be gained and each commuter could save about six minutes every day. 

In addition, in five of the cities that have implemented congestion pricing CO2 emissions have been reduced between fourteen and twenty-two percent.

If there were a daily charge to cross over into a regularly congested zone it might cost as much as $4 depending on the timing and the amount of congestion. 

The maximum per hour traffic reduction would likely be about seven percent which should be enough to allow normal traffic flow. It is likely that such fees would raise $1 or $2 million per week.

The Oregon Department of Transportation is studying congestion pricing related to the I-5 corridor in Portland. 

Recently Metro began a study of their own. Portland City Council has created the Equitable Mobility Task Force that will involve many concerned stakeholders and community members in an advisory capacity. 

The task force is expected to begin reporting to the City Council by the end of the year. 

On average it takes about five or six years to study, plan, and implement a congestion pricing program.

Congestion Pricing

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