Opinion: Tolling won’t solve our epidemic of traffic deaths

Sarah Iannarone

Iannarone is executive director of The Street Trust, which advocates for a safe, equitable, low-carbon, multimodal transportation system. She is also a member of the Oregon Department of Transportation’s Regional Toll Advisory Committee.

Last week, Oregon leaders Rep. Susan McLain and Sen. Lee Beyer called for tolling as a solution to our state’s transportation challenges, including congestion and safety, (“Tolling will keep us moving – and moving safely,” Nov. 13). “Inaction simply isn’t an option,” they argued. “We have big issues ahead of us, and we need bold solutions. Tolling must be part of the strategy.”

We certainly need to act with bold vision and urgency. If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that reduced demand for drive alone trips at peak hours eases gridlock. For that reason, we support tolling the greater Portland metro region, but only conditionally.

For tolling to actually keep Oregonians moving safely as Beyer and McLain argue, the Oregon Department of Transportation must:

  • Center equity in their process and outcomes;
  • Explicitly establish that the primary purpose of tolling is to reduce demand on highways at peak times, not to generate revenue for expanding highway capacity;
  • Share a portion of the tolling proceeds with local jurisdictions to keep streets in a state of good repair;
  • Spend its most flexible, non-tolling generated dollars on making streets greener and safer statewide, with a focus public and active transportation.

Tolling designed primarily to fund freeways expansions won’t unlock gridlock or begin to address the stealth epidemic of traffic deaths taking place on our streets. Rather than focusing on projects that serve interstate corporate interests, ODOT should unveil a plan for how it will keep Oregonians moving safely day-to-day.

Traffic fatalities are on the rise nationwide and Oregon has the 10th highest traffic fatality rate in the country – with 1.45 roadway deaths for every 100 million miles traveled, according to data for the first half of 2022 from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Multnomah County’s 2021 REACH Transportation Crash and Safety Report highlights the racial disparities in these conditions: Black residents in Multnomah County were killed in traffic at nearly twice the rate of white residents between 2013-2017. Portland’s 2021 Vision Zero Crash Report finds that a majority of its deadly crashes occur in neighborhoods with larger populations of people of color and low-income households.

Most of these fatalities aren’t concentrated along I-5 and I-205 where ODOT plans to toll and spend most of its money; they’re happening on ODOT’s dangerous arterials like Southeast Powell Boulevard crisscrossing the state, affecting lives where Oregonians live, work, study, play and pray every day.

In 2021, 32 people—just over half the city’s total traffic fatalities—died on ODOT-owned roads in Portland.

It is long past time to push back on the age-old excuse that “there is not enough money” to fix ODOT’s deadliest streets. With the passage of the federal infrastructure bill, ODOT seized an historic opportunity to direct millions of dollars towards fixing deadly roads and improving transit service along with walking and biking conditions – particularly for communities that have been traditionally underserved. But they didn’t go far enough and still directed too many of those flexible dollars to enhancing highways.

Moving forward, ODOT must do more with less by taking a creative, holistic approach and implementing tolls before expanding highways. The state should also focus its most flexible funding on building robust public transit and active transportation networks to address climate change and get our communities moving safely. And the state should address the public health crisis of dangerous streets for which there are relatively low-cost antidotes including lowering speed limits and implementing cameras for equitable, automated enforcement.

The state’s initial $50 million allocation from federal infrastructure funds for its innovative Great Streets program is a drop in the bucket to address conditions on ODOT’s deadly orphan highways like Powell Boulevard in Portland that are costing Oregonians their lives and livelihoods. While state lawmakers are looking at various sources to provide an estimated $1 billion for the Interstate Bridge Project in the 2023 legislative session, they should also find $500 million for ODOT to begin systematically upgrading our state’s deadliest streets in alignment with its Blueprint for Urban Design, which was developed to guide the agency in building roadways that meet local community needs and keep Oregonians safe. That investment will do far more to ensure cleaner air, vibrant commerce, access to housing and jobs, and climate-smart mobility for Oregonians than freeway widening.

New leadership in Salem must hold the Oregon Transportation Commission and ODOT accountable for updating our transportation system for accessibility, safety, racial justice and climate action. Toll-to-build highway expansion schemes won’t prevent deaths and severe injuries on our roadways. But ODOT can prioritize maintaining and upgrading our state’s existing right-of-way over building new and can invest in sidewalks, bikeways and transit infrastructure that ensures great streets – and safe mobility – for every Oregonian.

Share your opinion

Submit your essay of 500-600 words on a highly topical issue or a theme of particular relevance to the Pacific Northwest, Oregon and the Portland area to commentary@oregonian.com. Please include your email and phone number for verification.

We will be happy to hear your thoughts

Leave a reply

Lazy Cork
Enable registration in settings - general
Compare items
  • Total (0)
Shopping cart