By John A. Charles, Jr.

Oregon stopped building new highways in 1983 when I-205 was completed. Top planning officials began espousing a philosophy of spending money on rail transit rather than roads. The government also used the power of zoning to crowd more people into urban centers, in the belief that high density would lead to less reliance on cars.

The new strategy failed.

The Portland regional transit agency, TriMet, was given more than $3.6 billion to build a light rail system; yet between 1997 and 2016, TriMet’s market share of all commute trips in Portland fell from 12% to 10%. As a result, traffic congestion has become a major barrier to regional mobility.

Now a bipartisan group of legislators, led by Republican Rich Vial of Wilsonville and Democrat Brian Clem of Salem, has introduced a bill that would jump-start the highway-building process. HB 3231 would authorize cities and counties to jointly form special districts for the purpose of building and operating limited-access public highways.

If built, such highways would likely be financed through loans, with debt service paid off by tolls.

So far HB 3231 has not received a public hearing. It should. Motorists deserve all the highways they are willing to pay for. Let’s give them a chance to vote with their dollars for a better road system.


John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

7 thoughts on “Let’s Build Some Highways

  1. We’re now taking more total trips but not any more car trips. As we grow as a city, we’ll need to rely on transit, which is really the only form of transportation cities have the physical room to accommodate. It’s a lot easier to get a bus across the river than it is to get 60 cars across the river.
    I know you get worked up over rail and its costs, but I hope you’ll push for more investments in buses, and for reserving scarce right-of-way for exclusive bus use. Because, as you rightly point out, congestion has become a major barrier to regional mobility. And you and everyone who’s ever taken a basic traffic course know that building and widening roads for cars leads to more traffic and more congestion.

    1. “TriMet’s market share of all commute trips in Portland fell from 12% to 10%. As a result, traffic congestion has become a major barrier to regional mobility.”
      I think John has it right here. The only way to get to better mobility is to make transit more attractive to more people. It’s understandable that people are willing to pay for more roads under the misguided notion that they’ll get less traffic rather than more. But John correctly points out that, for big and growing metro regions, you need great transit in order to preserve mobility.

  2. Tolls are a very bad idea, either pay as the highways are built or not all. I disagree with this idea and HB 3231,

  3. The primary if not only beneficiaries of Oregon road construction would be Portland Metro residents and commuters. User fees (i.e.: tolls) are the only fair and practical way to finance these new roads. Passers by and other infrequent users would not likely object to pay for an easier passage through Portland as in many cases traversing the metro is unavoidable and usually the only bottleneck on I5 north of LA other than Seattle.

    1. It’s sometimes hard to see exactly how much power the trucking industry has over Oregon transportation policy. They want to get through the metro area with their goods without paying their share. Metro residents and commuters have other ways of getting around. Let the market figure it out. If the trucking lobbyists want more lanes and new freeways to bypass the metro area, let them pay for them. And let the metro residents’ money go to investments that help them move around, not through, the area.

      1. Matt Bernoldi, you would see exactly how much “power” the trucking industry has, IF they went on strike. Most Grocery stores get stocked DAILY from a large distribution center which is usually outside the urban boundary (Winco has theirs in Wilsonville, Safeway and Fred Meyer have them in Clackamas, which was once outside the fully developed area. Without that daily restocking, you would go hungry FAST. Most families do not stock a six month supply of anything, much less food.

    2. John Lyon, EVERYONE benefits from a third bridge option: 1. Supplies get there faster, so you can order smaller quantities (ie. smaller trucks). 2. With an additional bridge, freight and passenger vehicles can avoid transiting downtown Portland. Result: less pollution, time wasted, congestion. 3. Faster delivery means trucks are running more efficiently, resulting in lower costs. SOME of which is passed on to the shipper and/or receiver of the transported goods. 4. Less congestion downtown means that the proposals of TRIPLING the cost of parking would be (hopefully) passed by as not needed (except that the Portland government would do it anyway to get more income for frivolous expenditures). 5. The majority of Oregon south of Portland would get better service from freight and other transportation means due to the lowered congestion and delivery times.
      If you look at the issue provincially, it appears that there is no benefit to others. If you look at the larger picture, you can easily see that there are benefits to a wide variety of people, businesses and locations up and down the West coast.

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