A Market-Based Approach to the Columbia River Crossing

Local political leaders have spent much of the past decade paralyzed about whether the I-5 Interstate Bridge over the Columbia River should be replaced, and if so, how to pay for it. Although it may seem like an enormously complicated undertaking, it doesn’t have to be. There is a simple solution that would solve traffic, transit and environmental concerns, while being financially self-sustaining. That solution is market-based road pricing coupled with de-regulated transit.

The essential elements are as follows:

“¢ Replace the existing facility with a new bridge.

“¢ Finance 100% of it through user fees (tolls).

“¢ Use electronic tolling technology to collect the fees, with variable toll rates designed to: (1) recover the cost of construction and maintenance; and (2) ensure free-flowing traffic at all times. This concept is known as congestion pricing or peak-hour pricing. It has been used for decades by electric utilities, movie theaters and restaurants, and more recently on highways such as SR 91 and I-15 in California, where it has been quite successful in maintaining free-flowing traffic conditions.

“¢ Do not build a light rail line, which would increase the cost by more than $1.4 billion. Light rail is too slow, too costly, and it’s not capable of moving very many people at peak periods (compared with buses). If we use congestion pricing, we will have three thru lanes in each direction constantly flowing at high speed. Those lanes will serve as de facto express-bus lanes, at virtually no cost to transit customers.

“¢ Legalize all forms of private transit, including jitneys, shuttles and buses, in order to take advantage of the uncongested lanes. Neither C-Tran nor TriMet is capable of meeting all consumer demands for transit, and we should allow private investors to enter the market.

The purpose of the variable highway tolls should be to ensure that traffic is always in free-flow conditions of roughly 50 MPH within the congestion-priced area, currently planned as a five-mile stretch from Vancouver to Columbia Blvd. in Portland. Maintaining traffic at 50 MPH will help us maximize a number of competing objectives: It will give us satisfied drivers, allow for high-capacity public and private transit, and minimize carbon dioxide emissions (because vehicle engines perform better at steady speeds than they do in heavy traffic).

No other strategy combines so many benefits at such a low cost, without the need for subsidies. However, it can get even better if we plan a Phase II that expands the concept to the entire urban freeway network. Metro studied this idea 10 years ago and found that regional congestion pricing would improve peak-period highway speeds by more than 50%.

Governor Ted Kulongoski, who recently endorsed congestion pricing, should request that Metro update the analysis to assess peak-hour pricing on I-405, I-5 from Washington to Wilsonville, all of I-205, I-84 from Gresham to the I-5 junction, HW 217, and HW 26 from Hillsboro to I-405. Such a study could proceed on a separate but parallel track to the Columbia River Crossing study, enabling us to act in a few years when the time is right.

Motorists will immediately fear double-taxation with this vision, but that can be addressed by spending gas tax dollars only on local roads and making the urban highways self-supporting with tolls. As long as the toll revenue is spent on maintaining and expanding highway facilities (and not siphoned off for wasteful projects like the streetcar), motorists will be much better off than they are today.

Portland’s population is expanding, but our highway and bridge network is crumbling. The only sustainable solution, financially and environmentally, is market-based road pricing and de-regulated transit.

John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market think tank.

  • Joanne Rigutto

    If Portland is going to continue to expand, and it is, then it needs to increase it’s transportation infrastructure. I read reports from the Intelligent Transportation System (ITS) people and the Vehicle Infrastructure Integration (VII) people and they all say that if we just use our transportation infrastructure more efficiently we can get all of these increases in volume out of it and it can accomodate so many more vehicles. I see these people thinking of drivers like commodities in a supply chain or bits in a datastream on a computer or phone line. It takes absolutely nothing into consideration of the fact that it is a human being who is driving and humans aren’t machines, bits in a datastream, or a commodity that can be controlled in a supply chain. I’ve been on I-5, 205, 217, etc. going either direction during morning rush ‘hour’ and evening rush ‘hour’. When there is no accident the traffic flows just fine, even given the heavy loads. The problem is when someone has an accident, and if the roads aren’t increased to match the increased volume in traffic it’s just going to get worse, not better and all the tolling and congestion/corridor pricing in the world won’t help matters. Congestion and corridor tolling is being used to discourage people from driving during certain times of the day/days of the week. Why don’t you people all be honest and just come out and say it. If you really are interested in removing vehicles from the road, you might as bloody well make driving illegal during those times….

    One of the RUFTUF reports stated that unless you mandate that everyone in this state subject themselves to active movement surveillance by requiring that they place transponders on their vehicles the state cannot implement congestion/corridor pricing. Unless everyone has active RFID transponders on their vehicles, the state goes to photo tolling, where a picture of the license plate is taken and a bill sent to the owner, or some combination of those two, you’re not going to get free flowing traffic through a tollway at 50mph anyway. I don’t know about any of you, but I’m not into 24/7/365 government surveillance of my movements, I don’t care how many bridges or miles of road it might finance… USDA is already trying to pull that kind of BS on the small scale livestock owners in this country and they are in a huge fight over that kind of surveillance.

    And here’s another point. During ODOT’s pilot project for road tolling conducted in Portland during 2006-2007 they tried the congestion/corridor pricing in the second half of the pilot. The per mile fee for driving went from around 1-2 cents/mile, which the pilot project’s designers figured was about the same as paying the state fuels tax, to 10 cents/mile for the congestion/corridor participants. Excuse me, but just how much did you say you wanted to pay for the services like deliveries, construction, and care to grounds, etc.? And how much farther do you want to drive peoples’ wages down? In case you hadn’t noticed there are an awful lot of people living in and working in Portland who can’t take the damn bus! I’m a contractor. I’m an independant and I can raise the prices on the goods and services I provide to cover my costs. I have enough of a reputation and have access to a client base that I’ll probably be able to pass my costs on in the event of tolling and congestion/corridor pricing and not loose business because of it. How about the guy who’s working for someone? He’s going to be required by his employer to show up at a certain time at a certain place, he’s going to have to in order to pay his bills, and you’re going to punish him for it by charging congestion/corridor pricing. How nice of you.

    I’ve been watching this whole tolling business for over a year both in Oregon and around the country. I don’t have a problem with a flat mileage fee that would replace with no increase, the fuels tax for the state. But I’m going to tell you right now that if the state of Oregon or any of the cities, especially Portland or its neighbors tries to implement congestion/corridor or cordon pricing you are going to have the biggest fight on your hands that you can imaging and then some. I’ve talked to other contractors about this and they are fighting mad, so just don’t go there…..

  • Jerry

    Strange – very strange – that he would call for gas tax dollars to be spent only on local roads, as the tolls would take care of the rest. If that is so, why not cut the gas tax, as less will be needed if fewer roads are being maintained?

    Remember, too, that the proposed congestion tax for London in 2009 is US $47 PER DAY if you drive the wrong kind of car. With parking at US $12 or more per day, I think Oregonians who work in Portland would love the idea of spending $70 in taxes and fees a day to get to work. And it will get that high, too, as once you implement it nothing will stop the increases. NOTHING.

    I would propose some better ideas:

    Privatize ODOT and build the new bridge with the savings. And don’t tell me there won’t be any savings. There will. And some new roads might actually get built, too.

    OR, how about tripling the license fees on hybrids instead of just doubling them? Those people are simply not paying their fair share.

    OR, how about a bicycle tax? Those people are not paying anything to use our wonderfully maintained highways and city streets.

    OR, how about a sales tax of only 7% on the dollar with ALL proceeds devoted to improving our roads and bridges?

    OR, how about taking all the savings from repealing the iditotic ethanol mandate and using that money to build the bridge?

    OR, how about whenever those electronic toll units are passed through and are recorded, sending the owner a speeding ticket if he or she is going over the limit?

    OR, how about a tuition increase for out-of-state students and using that money for roads and bridges?

    OR, how about getting more video poker machines strewn about and using that money for roads and bridges?

    OR, how about an entire new lottery program with different games and such with all that money going for transportation?

    OR, how about all Indian gaming sites chip in 25% of their winnings to help us out. You have to drive to get to them, don’t you?

    OR, why not change the state income tax to something like 12 or 12% and use all that new money to solve congestion?

    OR, why not expand the vehicle testing program statewide and double the fees? It is a valuable program and it really helps clean the air, so why not make it state-wide??

    OR, why not triple car license fees. They are way, way too low now. Very low. It is embarrassing to have them so low. I feel cheapened.

    See how easy it is to solve problems like this one?

    All it takes is money – plenty of it – and willing dupes to pony it up.

    Vive le pont!!

  • John Fairplay

    Prior to providing even one more dollar for “transportation,” I would like to see an audit of ODOT by an auditor who is not simply trying to cover up corruption or count paper clips.

    The ideas expressed in this article seem like a disaster for freedom.

  • Jerry

    No one will ever truly investigate ODOT. It will never happen. They know they are wasting money and will stop at nothing to keep hiding their incompetence.

  • BetsyO

    I understand all of this except why we should build a new bridge. Congestion pricing can make the current bridge work just fine — add in another $100 million to seismic upgrades and we’re good.

    • dean

      I was thinking the same thing as BetsyO. If “congestion” is the overriding issue, and given all the other bottlenecks downstream of the bridge, why not toll the existing bridge, at least during congested times, and thus discourage the traffic that need not be there during those times. That would save a few billion quid on a new bridge for starters. And since the existing bridges are structurally sound, it seems like a prudent aproach.

      Having grown up with tolls back east, I’m less suspicious of them than most Oregonians.

      • Joanne Rigutto

        “Having grown up with tolls back east, I’m less suspicious of them than most Oregonians.”

        Good, then we can put two tracking devices on your vehicle and you can pay your toll and mine too.

        I have two really big problems with congestion/corridor tolling –

        1 – The only way you can do that type of tolling is to conduct a lot of surveillance on people. I’m already subject to enough surveillance as it is, I don’t want any government or private agency logging where/when I drive. The RUFTUF committee, in one of their reports regarding congestion/corridor tolling, and even for straight mileage charges, stated that at the very least, for auditing purposes the information will have to be retained for a period of time, one month or two at the very minimum. If the movement data is held in a database for any time at all, it can be accessed for other uses. I can think of lots of ways for ODOT, the cities and counties to make money off of a database like that, and I can imagine that law enforcement would love to have access to that type of data. This whole tolling program, if implemented, will be done through a public/private partnership, and the private part of the team will need to make a lot of money to implement and maintain a system like this.

        2 – The other problem I have is that there are a lot of people who don’t have the option of altering the hours they drive and they must drive in order to work. They don’t have the option of just raising their wages to cover the added costs. Dean, you’re a landscape architect, so you should be familiar with construction and the various trades. You should know that people working in construction as employees are being pinched enough as it is financially. Even the union workers are feeling the money squeeze, with fuel prices rising, and more and more competition from open shops. Congestion/corridor tolling will punish the people that Portland and the metro area will need to build the homes that all of the new residents are going to be living in for working in the very trades that build those homes. And that’s just one segment of society that’s going to be hit hard by that type of tolling.

        Personally, I wouldn’t have a problem with a regular mileage fee. It cam be collected at a low rate, 1-2 cents/mile and would charge people an amount commensurate to the miles they drive without conducting too much movement surveillance on them, just the number of miles they drive, not when/where they drive. Even I would accept that level of surveillance. And I wouldn’t put an extra charge on people if they drove over a set number of miles in a give period of time either.

        • dean

          Joanne…I’m actually with you on the surveillance issue. I don’t need no gubmint knowin where I be at (mostly here in my home office anyway). I was thinking more the old fashion method of throwing money in a box, combined with the newer method buying a sticker so one can zip through the express lanes. A toll operation like that could go from 7-10 AM and 3-6 PM only. No surveillance required.

          Yes….I agree a toll is a cost to those in the trades as well as to commuters who have rigid hours. But being stuck in traffic is also a cost isn’t it? Time is money (or so thtey say, though I think of it the other way around). So if the toll resulted in fewer cars that don’t need to be there during congestion times, then the toll cost might be more than made up in time saved, especially to those in the trades.

          Also…any decision has to be weighed against the multi-billion dollar cost of a new bridge, and the forgone options for other road and transportation improvements that expense will result in.

          I agree a mileage fee is better than the gas tax, espeially when we go to hybrid-electric plug in vehicles. But how does the government track our mileage?

          Oh…and as for the original post. I think John is in fantasy land if he believes that both construction and operation can be covered by tolls. And I wish he would give up on his jitney fixation. Politically, no light rail means no Oregon state or Metro support for a new bridge, so deal with that reality.

    • Anonymous

      “I understand all of this except why we should build a new bridge. Congestion pricing can make the current bridge work just fine — add in another $100 million to seismic upgrades and we’re good.”

      If we ever have any other problems, we’ll call on you for your elegantly simple solutions, Metro clone.

      You and dean can figure it all out.

  • Anonymous

    The freway bridge was never going to be built. This whole Columbia Crossing thing has been a charade and scheme to expand light rail to Vancouver.

    We’re watching the incremental steps and manouvers to make is happen.

    I was waiting for the inevitable call for tolling cars to pay for light rail. That’s what is happening now under the contionued mascarade of something else.

    and dean,,,, read my mind about you.

    • dean

      I did. All 3 words of it. Didn’t take much effort or time fortunately.

  • Very Bad Man

    I am sooooo glad I am retiring in 18 minths and will laugh at this pointless charade of local government. Fortunately, I will be living in a much better run state and will laugh at the sorry joke that is Metro Portland and Oregon government. Inept at evry turn!

  • Bob Clark

    I don’t understand why you would replace the existing bridge with a new bridge without increasing the number of lanes available to absorb new growth. Tolls with no committment to expand bridge capacity strikes me as the government’s version of “Money for Nothing. Tricks for Free.”

    Cascade really needs to take account of political realities when proposing measures. I suspect what would actually happen is you get the tolls but the extra money gets appropriated for other state causes besides road improvements.

    • Jerry

      Exactly, Bob. The tolls would go to things like the Oregon Cultural Trust and other needed state programs that MUST be funded.

      Something is very wrong here – very wrong.

  • Jim

    OR, how about a bicycle tax? Those people are not paying anything to use our wonderfully maintained highways and city streets.

    Wrong Jerry.

    1.) 90% of bicyclists own cars and pay those gas tax dollars. When they are not driving they are saving wear and tear on the roads, putting less pollution in our air, and leaving more room for you in your car.

    2.) 85% of funds for maintaining local streets used by cyclists come from non-gas tax dollars. The vast majority of gas tax dollars goes to building new freeways or maintaining old crumbling ones that that vast majority of cyclists never while on their bikes.


    • jim karlocik

      90% of bicyclists own cars and pay those gas tax dollars.

      *JK:* So, you argue, since I pay gas tax on my car, I do not need to license my motorcycle? Or my second car?

      GET REAL: You need to pay for the road that you use and quit trying to freeload off of others.


      • jim

        Mr. Karlock

        I realize it my be hard for you to see another perspective, but from another vantage point, drivers are the ones freeloading on our transportation system and our environment.

        Driving contributes much more significantly to the wear and tear of our roads. Cars also take up much more space on the roadway. Moreover, when we drive we are polluting both our atmosphere and local water quality. The latter is actually much less recognized. The vast majority of the pollutant loads from urban stormwater come from cars oils and metals that end up in our local waterways.

        So we do not pay full costs of driving and those costs are born by everyone fiscally and environmentally.

        When we choose to bike, walk, or use transit we are actually helping reduce costs of maintaining our roads and avoid the negative impacts of driving on our environment. We also free up space for those who may need to drive.

        So I think it is in everyone’s interest to encourage more biking, walking and transit use. We are never going to have enough money, space, air, and water to absorb the impacts of everyone driving a car.


  • Eddie

    It amazes me, the arguments made all over the place on the roads issue in Portland. We have around half a million residents, no confining geography on three sides, and apparently plenty of funds for trains, streetcars, pedestrian islands, speed bumps, chicanes, traffic circles, new striping, and every other non-improvement you can make to a road. Yet for some reason, we have been unable to widen a road in 30 years.

    Widen the freeways, scrape off the speed bumps, restripe all arteries back to four lanes, teach the bicyclists how to ride and obey traffic laws, and let the “City that Works” actually Work for a change. Of course, now come the arguments that this can’t happen, it’s too late to fix roads, cars are bad, we’re too crowded, etc etc. Get over it… we’re not the densest city, the most populace city, or any other superlative you want to name. Heck, we’re not even the greenest, unless that greyish color we see most of the year is green. We might be the most self-absorbed city… but that’s a discussion for another day. My point is, plenty of communities handle more traffic with less real estate, while we purposely sabotage traffic, then point at it and talk about how bad it is.

    We don’t need to artificially create a transportation crisis in Portland… as much as some people would love to believe it, autos will be with us for still quite some time, and insect-hive communities are not going to happen any time soon. If you really really must have people out of their cars, then invent something better… like mini-wormhole travel… instead of trying to force people back to the 19th century.

    • dean

      I no longer live in Portland, so won’t advise on what they should or should not do. But it seems to me they made a directional choice decades ago, when they chose to not build the Mt Hood Freeway and opted for light rail. From that point forward the city’s evolution has been towards a less car oriented, more transit,pedestrian and bicycle oriented city that is getting gradually denser. A large majority of people who live in Portland seem to support this direction, and keep electing officials, like Sam Adams, Rex Burkholder, and Robert Liberty (among many others) who aggressively pursue it. As long as this is what people want, this is what they are going to get. I personally think they made the right choice, and it is looking more right by the day ($4 a gallon gas and rising).

      If you are unhappy with this direction, then to paraphrase Bertol Brecht, “Perhaps you should dismiss the people and get a new people.”

  • Anonymous

    What seems to you as moving toward less car oriented is really moving towards ignoring cars and worsening traffic.

    “directional choice”? Ha.

    Goldschmidt killed the Mt Hood Freeway and others killed the Westside bypass which would have cost 500 million at the time.
    From that point the evolution has been a pretense and charade tof a less car oriented, more transit,pedestrian and bicycle oriented city that is getting gradually overcrowded and dysfunctional.
    A large majority of people who live in Portland seem to be continually duped by the perpetual tax funded propaganda, echo chamber press and activists like dean.
    Sam Adams, Rex Burkholder, and Robert Liberty (among many others) who aggressively decieve the public and advance failed policies are provided cover by the deans.
    dean would have his rural Damascus become the next Beaverton Round/SoWa density experiment with massive debt and chaos the outcome. All the while deluding himself and others that it’s all smart.
    Of course the deans are the same people blocking every effort to extract and use our own readily available natural resources and energy.

    The direction dean takes us is not the way of his fantasy.

    • dean

      Correction…Goldschmidt was ELECTED to kill that freeway BY THE PEOPLE who did not want it built through their neighborhoods.

      Yes…everyone but you has been “duped.” Must be hell.

    • Jed Williams

      “a less car oriented, more transit,pedestrian and bicycle oriented city that is getting gradually overcrowded and dysfunctional.”

      Says who? (says someone who posts anonymously). You are spouting raw opinion that flies in the face of reality.

      The vibrancy of Portland’s downtown and its inner neighborhoods have been a local and national success story for decades. Property values close in have soared over the last decade while remaining stable through the recent bursting in the national housing market bubble. Meanwhile the car-dependent in outlying areas like Camas and Happy Valley have experienced the greatest declines in home prices.

      Portland’s real challenge is too much successful and the resulting displacement of low income people. Nevertheless Portlanders have more money in their pockets because they have transportation choices other than driving. Regardless Portland itself is not a dysfunctional place… but a highly attractive evidenced by all this and the fact that people still flock here even during recessions.

      And while the city is becoming more dense (more people per acre) it is actually becoming less crowded (few people per dwelling unit). In some parts of the city the ratio of people to dwelling unit area has also fallen.

      The distinction between density and overcrowding is one Jane Jacobs exposed years ago in helping dispel many anti-urban myths which still get repeated over and over by the desperate effort by folks like anonymous to tell us how bad dense urban living is… in the face of the renaissance of urban living in Portland its absolute poppycock.


  • claire

    Yes… and Portland has many good examples neighborhoods that have grown denser while becoming more attractive and lively and not at the expense of privacy and increased traffic and noise. It has some bad examples too but both planners, landscape architects and developers are getting smarter at designing redevelopments that maintain or increase tranquility and privacy.

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