By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.
“Good in theory, bad in practice.” Sure, it’s a cliché, but it’s a cliché because so often it’s true. It looks to be especially true regarding congestion pricing in the Pacific Northwest.
The Oregon Department of Transportation is pursuing plans to impose tolls on parts of Interstate 5 and Interstate 205. Portland recently announced the formation of an “equitable mobility” task force, with “congestion pricing” as a key component. Not to be outdone, Metro, the Portland area’s regional government, is launching a study it hopes will lead to region-wide congestion pricing.
One would expect that something as big and complex as congestion pricing would require substantial public input. However, Metro has made clear that, at least for its technical evaluation of scenarios, its process does “not anticipate significant public outreach.” This is likely because a key takeaway from a survey by DHM Research concludes tolling “is not a popular idea and residents are skeptical that it will be effective at reducing congestion.”
Done properly, congestion pricing reduces congestion. It increases traffic flow while reducing travel time and greenhouse gas emissions. Who knows, it many even reduce blood pressure and road rage. It also raises money. And, done properly, the money would be used to improve and increase road capacity, which in turn further reduces congestion. In theory, congestion pricing is a near-perfect solution to congestion.
But, it’s a long and winding road from theory to implementation. By the end of the trip, the plan that’s put in place often looks very different from the near perfection seen in textbooks. Along the way, policymakers see the dollar signs and shift the goals from minimizing congestion to maximizing revenues to feed their never-ending need for spending on policy priorities and pet projects. In the Portland region, there appears to be little appetite for using money raised from tolls to expand or improve the road network.
As plans progress, interest groups shift the focus from willingness to pay to ability to pay. If they get their way, the pricing scheme becomes less about reducing congestion and more about income redistribution. The way things are going, it’s likely the tolling schemes under consideration will look like nothing seen in a textbook, and roadway users will be worse off.
Recent research by ECONorthwest provides an indication of how much worse off Portland-area residents could be. The study, commissioned by Uber, estimates the costs and benefits of a tolling scheme under consideration in Seattle. The scheme would draw a line around the city of Seattle and charge every vehicle entering the cordon. The tolls would vary by time of day, based on projected congestion at those times.
The study estimates the time-saving benefits of reduced congestion against the costs of the tolls. It concludes that Seattle-area drivers would be almost $40 million a year worse off under the scheme they studied. In other words, the amount paid in tolls would be about $40 million more than the value of time saved from reduced congestion, not including rebates or benefits that could be funded by toll revenue.
While Portland-area policymakers 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 side streets. Reduced speed limits have slowed traffic to a crawl in many areas. Speed bumps seem to be popping up faster than dandelions in spring.
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.
Eric Fruits, Ph.D. is Vice President of Research at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. This article appeared in The Oregonian on August 14, 2019.
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By John A. Charles. Jr.
Portland has an international reputation for successfully integrating land-use and transportation planning. The primary goals of such planning are to limit the physical size of the city and reduce the daily use of private motor vehicles by encouraging alternative modes of travel.
Many transportation policies have been developed in support of these goals. One of the most visible has been the policy of slowing vehicle speeds through “traffic calming” and “road diets.” Advocates claim that reducing road capacity for motor vehicles has only minor effects on travel time. They also assert that future demand for road space can be mitigated through mode-shifting from single-occupant driving to walking, biking and transit.
In the late 1990s the Sellwood Bridge and its eastside connector, Tacoma Street, provided a perfect opportunity to test both the concept of integrated planning as well as the strategy of implementing a road diet. The original Sellwood Bridge opened in 1925, and over the next 60 years it became the most heavily traveled two-lane bridge in the state. By the mid-1980s the Bridge was badly in need of either major remediation or replacement.
Multnomah County, which owned and operated it, imposed vehicle weight limits in 1985 and again in 2004. After the second reduction, all heavy vehicles (including transit buses) were prohibited.
With traffic levels continuing to rise, it was clear that Multnomah County needed to either build a wider replacement bridge or a two-lane replacement plus another bridge nearby to the south. Local planners, however, believed the Portland region to be overly reliant on the private automobile and decided to place a moratorium on any new Willamette River bridge capacity. They assumed that if the region simply stopped building bridges, they could persuade people to switch from driving to some other mode.
Soon thereafter, the City of Portland undertook a study of Tacoma Street in the Sellwood-Moreland neighborhood, with the goal of making it more pedestrian-friendly. The result of that process was a recommendation to downsize Tacoma from a four-lane collector to a two-lane “Main Street,” even though Tacoma was already a two-lane road except for four hours each weekday – 7-9 a.m. and 4-6 p.m. – when street parking was disallowed so that traffic flowing to and from the bridge could move faster. Striped crosswalks were also recommended in three locations between SE 6th and 13th, to allow pedestrians to safely cross mid-block.
Tacoma Street was put on a “road diet” in 2002, in which two travel lanes in each direction became one travel lane each way along with a center turn lane. These changes meant the Sellwood Bridge replacement would also inevitably be limited to two traffic lanes. While the new bridge was designed to be more than twice as wide as the original, more than half the through-lane capacity was allocated to non-motorized uses. The County made this decision even though 98% of all peak-hour passenger-trips on the old bridge had taken place in motorized vehicles.
The new Sellwood Bridge opened for travel in February 2016. The north side cycling/walking facilities were open, but the south side bikeway and shared-use sidewalk did not open until 2017.
Now that the bridge has been fully operational for more than two years, it’s possible to measure actual travel patterns and compare them with the forecasted results. It turns out that the transportation planners were wrong in their prediction of how future travel needs would be met.
Traffic congestion is worse than before. Cycling and walking levels have not gone up as predicted, and transit service is far below the levels promised in the planning documents. Moreover, peak-hour vehicle throughput on the bridge has been permanently reduced due to new traffic signals at either end of the bridge and lowered speed limits.
Since bridge “supply” was reduced but motorized travel “demand” went up with population growth, motorists have increasingly resorted to cutting through side streets north and south of Tacoma in order to gain access to the bridge. In fact, the Tacoma Street downsizing made this practice easier by creating a middle turn lane that creates shelter for motorists trying to enter the traffic queue from side streets. This has degraded the quality of life for nearby residents.
Although the new Sellwood Bridge was marketed as a cutting-edge example of the Portland commitment to “multi-modalism,” the bridge itself is not even a multi-modal facility. Heavy trucks are prohibited, and there is no bus service most of the time. Average daily travel is actually more reliant on the private automobile than it was in 1993.
This paper examines the rationale for putting the Sellwood Bridge/Tacoma Street corridor on a road diet and compares actual travel data with pre-construction forecasts. It offers a cautionary note for city leaders who are planning for growth by shrinking important arterials such as Naito Parkway, Foster Road, and NE Broadway.
John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, a position he has held since 2004. He received a BA degree with honors from University of Pittsburgh and an MPA degree from Portland State University. He has been writing about transportation policy for more than 30 years. The focus of his research is utilizing field studies to determine how the built environment influences urban travel behavior. He has co-authored case studies of transit-oriented developments in the Portland region related to the South Waterfront district, Hillsboro’s Orenco Station, and Steele Park in Washington County. His most recent paper is entitled, Why Cities and Counties Should Consider Leaving TriMet.