Voter approval for tolls moves closer to the ballot
A voter initiative that would amend the state Constitution to require in certain circumstances voter approval to place tolls on existing freeways is moving closer toward the 2020 ballot.
The Oregon Department of Justice released the draft ballot title for Initiative Petition 10 on Monday, Sept. 17. The draft opens up a public comment period before the ballot title is finalized.
Dubbed "Tolls Need Voter Approval," the initiative would require a vote of the people to toll existing freeways unless the proceeds paid only for increasing vehicle capacity. Voter approval would be required both statewide and in the county where the toll would be imposed.
Under the Constitution, revenue from transportation tolls may be used for a variety of purposes, including construction, reconstruction, repair, maintenance, operation and use of public highways" and other roads.
Additionally, officials with the Oregon Department of Transportation have asked the DOJ for advice on whether the Constitution allows the proceeds to be used to pay for improving access to public transportation and carpool incentives. The idea is that both strategies remove vehicles off the freeways and decrease traffic.
Gladstone Planning Commissioner Les Poole and state Reps. Mike Nearman, R-Independence, and Julie Parrish, R-West Linn, filed the initiative in response to a proposal to toll sections of Interstate 5 and Interstate 205 in Portland to raise money for highway improvements.
"Logically, a toll would sunset once the project is paid for," Poole said. "Tolling is a way of financing a project in lieu of bonding the entire project. Together in aggregate, all of tolling money should have to go to that specific project. They (state transportation commissioners) want to charge us just to use the roads."
The Oregon Transportation Commission voted unanimously Aug. 16 to seek approval from the Federal Highway Administration to toll the Abernethy Bridge on I-205 and all lanes of I-5 between Northeast Going Street/Alberta Street and Southwest Multnomah Boulevard. Meanwhile, commissioners have instructed the ODOT to conduct a feasibility study of tolling all seven interstates in Portland to form a "seamless loop" around the city.
Gov. Kate Brown has expressed support for that strategy.
However, poll results suggest the vast majority of Oregonians are more skeptical of tolling.
A DHM Research poll commissioned by ODOT in December found only 22.5 percent of residents in Multnomah, Washington, Clackamas and Clark counties were willing to pay a toll weekly or more frequently.
About 31 percent agreed ODOT should explore multiple options for encouraging motorists to alter their transportation choices, including tolling.
Even if the initiative passes, the transportation commission could still impose tolls without voter approval. No vote is required if the tolls are used to pay for "new net capacity."
The intent is that the proceeds would go toward projects on the road or bridge where the toll applies, Poole said. That is something the survey showed more residents support.
"New net capacity" is defined as "expansion of transportation infrastructure which did not exist prior to Jan. 1, 2018, and which has not been converted from a previous form of transportation infrastructure" already built and/or operated with public moneys.
The state Elections Division will accept written comments on the draft ballot title until 5 p.m. Oct. 1. The comments will be delivered to the DOJ for consideration before certification of the ballot title.