Cars on a highway, with a skyline in the background that is in Portland's Lloyd District.

 

Toll lanes are unfair! 

We hear this a lot, but it’s not necessarily true. In fact, there are many things happening on our streets and roads right now more inequitable than road pricing.

Road pricing systems are direct charges levied for the use of roads. These most commonly take the form of highway tolls, but can also be distance or time-based fees, congestion charges, or charges based on specific vehicle size or fuel types. 

Conversations about the implementation of road pricing systems are emerging across all levels of government throughout the Portland Metro region. From the demand-based parking model proposed by PBOT’s POEM Task Force to the Interstate Bridge Replacement Project and ODOT’s I-205 tolling project, our region is exploring various methods and strategies to implement charges for road use – pushing back on the normalized practice of subsidizing road use for drive-alone trips.  

The Street Trust supports road user charges that reflect the true cost of driving and greenhouse gas emissions, while improving travel for everyone. We’re excited about a future where the cost of driving more accurately reflects its negative impact on everything from the climate to public safety and individual health. However, we know that the primary objective of many road pricing models (even in the Portland metro) is to generate revenue  to cover the cost of new highway construction rather than to change behavior to improve traffic flow and help us reach our climate goals.

This is unacceptable and we’re working to change it.

We will continue to show up at decision-making tables across the region fighting to ensure that before any of these policies are put into place there’s a guarantee that they will improve equitable outcomes throughout our transportation system. 

If the future of road pricing is something that interests you we invite you to join us as we move toward a better future, together! 

 

Support Advocacy For Effective Congestion Pricing

Weigh In! Complete ODOT’s Pricing Survey by May 16th

 

Alt text: 2-up image with Twitter post featuring image of auto crashed into telephone pole adjacent to bike share station alongside image of cyclist forced into the street by car parked in bike lane.

 

It’s time for Oregon’s leaders to reject the old—dangerous and deadly—normal and to create a safer mobility system.

 

“We want to welcome you to our WeBike ride, a monthly program to empower women, transgender, and non-binary people to safely ride…” 

CRASH!!! BANG!!! 

We had just kicked off our event outside Hacienda CDC, at the corner of NE Killingsworth and Cully in Portland. The plan for the day was to tour the neighborhood and explore ways that the City of Portland (PBOT) could improve safety not just for people on walking or riding bicycles, but all street users, even those driving. We’d barely finished our introductions when we heard the boom of a crash next to us on the street. A car had slammed into the utility pole right next to the BIKETOWN station where just five minutes earlier several of us had stood in a group to unlock the shared bicycles for our event.1 

You don’t need to be a daily sidewalk or bike lane user to feel how close to home the epidemic of traffic violence is hitting—we’re all feeling it daily, regardless of our travel mode. This week, the New York Times reported per capita vehicle fatalities in the U.S. increased 17.5% between summer of 2019 and the same time in 2020—the largest two-year increase since World War II. Oregon is, sadly, outpacing the national trend, with statewide fatalities up 22% in the same period. And Portland has posted its highest fatalities in three decades.

As we round the bend into a third year defined by COVID-19, we know too well the extent to which the pandemic has exacerbated existing social problems and inequality. This is evident when considered alongside the recent report from our partners at Oregon Walks who found that “people who identify as Black, who are experiencing homelessness, who are Older Adults or who are Persons with Disabilities are all at a disproportionately high risk of being killed in collisions.”

The intensification of vulnerability during the pandemic is reinforced by a recent announcement that 70% of pedestrians killed in Portland last year were people experiencing homelessness; many were living along streets identified in the city’s “high crash network.”

As the reports of these rising fatalities sound alarms, there’s no shortage of attempts to explain away the problem. The NYT analysis referenced above blames “erratic behavior.” For the Portland mayor, homeless camps located near busy streets are the problem. Oregon’s Department of Transportation (ODOT) chalks it up to reckless driving, too few cars on the road, and too few officers to police them.

To me, this feels a lot like blaming a toddler for being cranky all day because they ate birthday cake for breakfast–is it the cake that’s to blame or the fact that it ended up on their plate in the first place?

Let’s be clear: crashes are a function of vehicle speed and volume. People are dying—on bikes, on motorcycles, on sidewalks, and, yes, inside autos—because drivers are going too damn fast. And they’re able to drive that way because our streets have been designed for frictionless driving, not human health and safety. 

We’re glad to see U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg acknowledge the traffic fatality crisis and attempt to address it via his recently released National Roadway Safety Strategy (NRSS). This Strategy marks an important display of leadership in the right direction. Systemic responses to epidemics are warranted, and we’re happy to see Buttigieg draw a throughline from the lack of safe streets to our inability to shift away from drive-alone trips toward low-carbon modes like walking, biking, and transit. We hope that the guidance issued in his roadmap trickles down quickly (along with adequate funding) to state and local governments.

But we can’t wait for Secretary Pete to come to our rescue: we need to rethink our streets—and our relationship to the streets—rapidly and locally. We can and must take swift action informed by best practices to reduce traffic fatalities immediately.

Oregon is in the top quartile of deadliest states for traffic crashes in the nation and the deadliest on the West Coast. This is a preventable tragedy that can be addressed by investing in a system that’s not as dominated by cars. When you improve the multimodal system and allow people to shift trips from vehicles, you not only reduce the number of vehicle miles traveled, you improve the safety of the transportation system.

A few state-level fixes we could make this month? The Oregon Legislature is considering a bill to authorize civilian review of traffic violations citations initiated by fixed photo radar, photo red light, and dual function cameras. Passing this will reduce costs for local police departments. (Currently in Portland, 100 percent of this review occurs on police over-time!) And more importantly, the Oregon Transportation Commission (OTC) will soon be directing ODOT how to allocate its one-time windfall from Biden’s infrastructure package.

OTC needs to address the traffic epidemic by steering these resources away from a funding mix that prioritizes drive-alone trips toward active transportation, public transit, and Safe Routes to School infrastructure, education, and safety programs, prioritizing those interventions and investments with the greatest climate and equity impacts. This is no time to undersign the deadly status quo by directing these funds to roadway expansions in conflict with our safety goals. 

The City of Portland, ostensibly a global leader in transportation innovation, could also act swiftly to reduce its traffic fatalities. Instead of sweeping vulnerable people off streets by emergency declaration, it could by the same authority (and with the same money) reduce vehicle speeds, clear intersection corners, and improve lighting in high-crash areas. (Reducing speeds from 40 to 20 MPH increases the likelihood that a vulnerable street user survives  a crash by 70%.)

Portland needs to rethink its public safety budget, beginning with reallocating funding set aside to hire police officers toward completing unfunded and shovel-ready projects in PBOT’s High Crash Network. Expediting implementation of the “Nearer Term Recommendations” from the Pricing for Equitable Mobility Task Force would generate revenue to enhance investments in programs like the “Transportation Wallet” that encourages travel modes other than driving alone. 

And finally, back to NE Killingsworth where this story started. PBOT is currently rushing through a paving project on that street which would leave that community with minimal protection from crashes just like the one we witnessed. Instead, project managers need to slow down and meaningfully engage residents to achieve the highest standard of protection for this already marginalized community – protection that could have possibly stopped that car this past Saturday from making it onto the sidewalk at all.

Making our streets safer is not going to be easy, but failing to act now will only continue the deadly trends, exacerbating disparities in communities with historical underinvestment. Investments in safe routes to school, pedestrian improvements, and safe ways to bike and access transit help strengthen the entire transportation network by reducing traffic fatalities and congestion, as well as improving public health. But sufficient funding is critical to provide these enhancements to the network.

It’s time for Oregon’s leaders to reject the old—dangerous and deadly—normal and to create a new mobility system and safe streets that keep our people safe and moving in the right direction.

By Sarah Iannarone, Executive Director

This post originally appeared in the Oregon Way substack.

sARA

Make Your Voice Heard B&W

 

Transportation advocates have long been pushing for safer streets and greener transportation policies to address the high rates of traffic fatalities and the fact that 40% of Oregon’s carbon emissions come from transportation. Today, we need your help to convince statewide policymakers to take bold action to invest in a sustainable and equitable transportation system.

The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) has put together different scenarios for how to spend the $1.2 billion of federal funding received from the Investments, Infrastructure and Jobs Act (IIJA). Out of this massive investment, $412 million are considered “flexible funds.” While one of the scenarios does commit more to public and active transportation – areas that have been profoundly underinvested with enormous negative climate and equity outcomes – all of them take a “spread it around” approach, allocating at least $54 million to expansion and maintenance of highways.

ODOT and the Oregon Transportation Commission (OTC) must adopt an investment approach that does right by communities that have been overshadowed and underfunded. ODOT should also follow the Governor’s Executive Order calling for a reduction in GHG emission and all investments with these funds should be evaluated for their climate impacts. 

Over the last few weeks, state legislators, individuals, and leaders from multiple advocacy groups have commented to ODOT demanding a more thoughtful allocation of the funds in line with our values and now ODOT needs to hear from you! 

We’re asking you to provide input to the decision in three ways. (We’ve provided assistance below this list to help you complete these tasks):

  1. Fill out ODOT’s open house survey including “ratings” for the different programs and scenarios and the option to add comments. (Need ideas? We’ve included key points and suggestions below). The results of this survey will be presented to the OTC. 
  2. Submit a comment through the OTC public comment form.
  3. Provide oral comments at the OTC virtual meeting on February 17 (12:30 to 2:30 PM). Comment timeslots are limited, and you must sign up by at least 4pm the day before the meeting – information is posted on the OTC meeting website.

The OTC will make the final investment allocation decision at the end of March. We’ll keep you posted about ways to engage as the conversation progresses. 


As promised – our advice to help you craft testimony:

  • No money should be allocated to “Enhance Highway” 
  • If money must be allocated to “Fix-It” it should be limited and prioritized for projects with the greatest climate and equity impacts
  • Invest in programs with better safety, climate, and equity impacts: Safe Routes to School, Great Streets, and Local Climate Planning
  • Prioritize spending on areas where, due to constitutional restrictions, Highway Trust Fund money cannot be spent.

For the survey, we suggest the following ratings. (More detail about our take on these areas below.)

  • Station 2 (Survey 1): Areas to Invest
    • Safe Routes to School – 5
    • Great Streets – 5 
    • Fix-it – 1
    • Enhance Highway – 1
    • Local Climate Planning – 5
    • ADA Curb Ramps – 3
    • Business and Workforce Development – 4
    • Match for US DOT Competitive Grants – 3
    • Maintenance and Operations – 1
  • Station 3 (Survey 2):  Funding Options
    • Fix-It – 1
    • Public and Active Transportation – 5
    • Enhance Highway – 1
    • Balanced – 1

More Detail on the Areas of Investment:

  • Safe Routes to School: The Safe Routes to School program builds bike lanes, sidewalks and street crossings around elementary and middle schools. This is a grant program that always has many more applications than it can fund, and provides direct investment in community-identified projects.
  • Great Streets: Many state highways that pass through communities focus on moving traffic and do not adequately address the needs of people biking, walking, or riding transit, nor do they adequately support community and economic vitality. Great Streets is a new program that could provide much-needed focus on people instead of vehicle movement.
  • Fix-It: There is no question that repair of roads and bridges is an expensive and important investment. However, regardless of the amount of money allocated to ODOT, the agency always lacks adequate funding for repair and maintenance.  ODOT has historically chosen to spend unrestricted money on large-scale roadway expansion projects over investing in maintenance and operations.  ODOT needs to shift to systemically prioritizing maintenance instead of expansion and spend our dollars efficiently to make our system whole. Our low ratings for “Fix-It” in this survey reflect our belief that these important investments need to be built sustainably into the budget, and ODOT should not be bailing itself out with this one-time windfall. 
  • Enhance Highway: “Enhance highways” means building new roadway. It is a scientific fact that “enhancing” or expanding highway infrastructure increases miles driven and, in turn, greenhouse gas emissions. This relationship between road capacity and traffic is well established as the “fundamental law of road congestion” or “induced demand.” Because of this, ODOT’s intention to expand highways directly contradicts Governor Brown’s executive order calling for a 45 percent reduction of GHG emissions from 1990 levels by 2035. If Oregon intends to meet these goals, highway enhancement is not an option and no money should be allocated to it. (It’s worth noting that adding roadway capacity also reduces congestion only in the short term, and we’ll all just end up stuck in the same traffic on wider roads with more other vehicles.) There are plenty of other reasons to avoid “Enhance Highway” investments – they create new maintenance obligations on top of the existing ones that ODOT has demonstrated very little interest in meeting, and lead to more driving which leads to more injuries and deaths. 
  • Local Climate Planning: The state’s Department of Land Conservation and Development is proposing making cities, counties and metropolitan planning organizations across Oregon update their transportation plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation system. This money would support rapid implementation of those rules, which will support climate and equity outcomes across the state.
  • Americans with Disabilities Act Curb Ramps: ODOT is required by a lawsuit to build ADA-compliant curb ramps. While ADA-compliant curb ramps are extremely important for accessibility, this work – which should have been done long ago – should also be covered by ongoing funding, not by this one-time windfall.
  • Business and Workforce Development: ODOT is investing in internal programs that train new construction workers and support businesses owned by women and people of color so they can compete for ODOT contracts. 
  • Match for U.S. DOT Competitive Grants: The U.S. Department of Transportation will hand out more than $100 billion for competitive grants. Most programs require grantees to provide at least 20% of the total project funding. ODOT would like to use some of the IIJA federal money to replace state funding on various projects, so they can use that state funding as a match to apply for grants to get more federal money. This could be good or bad, depending on what grants ODOT applies for.
  • Maintenance and Operations: This money would be spent on regular highway maintenance activities like patching potholes, plowing snow, and other day-to-day work. As with the Fix-It category, our low ratings for this investment option reflect our belief that maintenance needs to be built sustainably into the budget, and ODOT should not be bailing itself out with this one-time windfall.