PORTLAND — If it cost $3.50 when a driver crossed Interstate 205’s Abernethy Bridge, the toll would yield about $50 million per year and support the sale of enough bonds to pay for a significant share of the widening and seismic reinforcement of the bridge, according to an analysis by WSP USA.
That project — which includes adding a third lane to segments of I-205 where there are only two — is estimated to cost about $500 million.
The Oregon Transportation Commission voted unanimously Aug. 16 to seek approval from the Federal Highway Administration to toll the bridge and all lanes of Interstate 5 between Northeast Going Street/Alberta Street and Southwest Multnomah Boulevard. Meanwhile, commissioners have instructed the Oregon Department of Transportation to conduct a feasibility study of tolling all seven interstates to form a “seamless loop” around Portland.
Gov. Kate Brown said she is supportive of the commission’s work so far on tolling.
“No one else has been able to come up with another resource for how we would pay for these extremely expensive seismic resiliency projects and congestion reduction projects,” Brown said during a phone conference call with reporters Aug. 17.
Brown, who grew up in Minnesota, brought up the collapse of the Interstate 35 West bridge in Minneapolis during rush hour on Aug. 1, 2007. Vehicles plummeted onto the banks of the Mississippi River, killing 14 and injuring 145 people.
“My family wasn’t individually impacted. My family had friends who were impacted,” Brown said. “I don’t want to see that happening under my watch, and I don’t think any Oregonian would want that to happen here. We have to invest in our transportation infrastructure, and projects like the Abernethy Bridge significantly if we want not to be devastated after a 9.0 earthquake.”
Under the Oregon Constitution and state statute, toll revenue may be used to pay for seismic upgrades and widening of bridges and almost any road improvement imaginable.
The Constitution states that revenue from any tax or fee on the ownership, operation or use of motor vehicle “shall be used exclusively for the construction, reconstruction, repair, maintenance, operation and use of public highways, roads, streets and roadside rest areas in this state.”
It’s still unclear whether the commission could legally use the money to enhance public transit services or to give incentives to drivers for carpooling and hence, reducing the amount of traffic on the interstates.
ODOT officials are seeking guidance from the Oregon Department of Justice, which has yet to complete its analysis, said ODOT Assistant Director Travis Brouwer.
Another unknown is whether the commission will place restrictions on the use of tolling revenue.
For instance, could the proceeds from an I-5 toll be used to pay for electronic tolling infrastructure on Interstate 84?
“That would certainly be an eligible use because under the Constitution and state statute, you could use that money on any road,” Brouwer said. “The question would be what restrictions would the Oregon Transportation Commission place on the revenue, whether the revenue would be restricted to the corridor where it’s collected or could be used in another corridor. That’s not a question that has been answered at this point.”
An initiative proposed for the 2020 ballot would require voter approval for any tolls that don’t raise revenue that goes directly to adding capacity to the interstates, such as building new lanes. Passage of that measure — should it make it onto the ballot — could further restrict how the money could be used.