Oregon DOT’s own consultants say congestion pricing would be a better way to fix congestion at the I-5 Rose Quarter than spending $800 million.

Pricing would improve traffic flow and add capacity equal to another full lane of traffic, according to WSP who called it “our best alternative” for dealing with the Rose Quarter

Failing to advance pricing as an alternative in the environmental review violates the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Governor’s direction.  The City of Portland also made its willingness to go along with this project conditional, based on ODOT implementing pricing prior to constructing this project.

Nearly two years ago, City Observatory pointed out that congestion pricing would be a far more economical and effective way to fix congestion on I-5 that spending half a billion dollars widening the freeway at the Rose Quarter. Since then, the project’s price tag has ballooned to nearly $800 million.

But more importantly:  The Oregon Department of Transportation’s own consultants have explicitly testified that congestion pricing would be a better, cheaper way to fix congestion than this expensive project.  They hired WSP—a global traffic engineering firm—to study a range of pricing alternatives for area freeways, including Interstate 5.  While the scope of the project was much broader (details below), WSP’s Chris Swenson testified that pricing would be especially effective and economical at the Rose Quarter.  On February 28, 2018  he told Portland Value Pricing Policy Advisory Committee Meeting, that congestion pricing would eliminate “flow breakdowns” and produce just as much traffic relief as building an additional travel lane.

In the Rose Quarter particularly, the cost of new lanes new capacity is significant. You’ve got a lot of things on structure there, which makes it very expensive. I know that there is a Rose Quarter project. That isn’t online, and it is in the model. However, I think that our best alternative, because of the cost of new lanes–it’s not saying no new lanes ever it’s not saying you can’t do it—it’s just given what we were told, this is what you need to analyze. Your best option is to get traffic running much better in every lane in each lane, and right now with the flow breakdowns that you’ve got during the peak periods, that’s not happening. So if we could get a 50% improvement in those two lanes—And that’s very doable—then you’re effectively adding a new lane of capacity on a two lane section, and it would operate as if it were three lanes versus what it’s operating today.


ODOT consultant Swenson: To deal with Rose Quarter congestion, pricing would be “our best alternative” . . . “effectively adding a new lane of capacity”

So rather than squandering the better part of a billion dollars, the state could achieve the same objective, faster, more effectively and far more cheaply by implementing congestion pricing.

Tragically, the project’s environmental assessment didn’t consider that as a possible alternative. But look high and low in the Environmental Assessment and its Traffic Technical Report and you’ll find not a single mention of pricing. In our view, that’s a plain violation of the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires a consideration of a full range of reasonable alternatives.  In fact, ODOT and the Federal Highway Administration specifically excluded an analysis of congestion pricing, claiming that there was no need to do so because the congestion pricing wasn’t identified as a project in the Regional Transportation Plan.  ODOT also ignored a specific direction from Oregon Governor Kate Brown to analyze congestion pricing as part of its environmental review of the project.

Congestion pricing is a better solution for Portland traffic

Now in some places, you might be able to argue that congestion pricing is far-fetched or politically infeasible.  In Oregon, as it turns out, its neither:  In fact, it’s already been adopted as law.  Two years ago, Oregon’s Legislature adopted HB 2017, which directed the state Department of Transportation to begin work to implement congestion pricing on Interstate 5 and Interstate 205 in the Portland metropolitan area.  In addition, the City of Portland made its planning approval of the Rose Quarter project conditional on ODOT implementing congestion pricing on I-5. The city’s adopted Central City Plan specifically calls for congestion pricing to be implemented in conjunction with the Rose Quarter project:

ODOT, in partnership with PBOT will implement congestion pricing and TDM options to mitigate for climate impacts as soon as feasible and prior to the opening of the project.
(Central City Plan, page 139)

In addition, in December 2017, Portland’s City Council voted unanimously to endorse congestion pricing as part of the city’s future transportation planning. Last year, the state transportation department published a preliminary analysis of several pricing alternatives.  Among the proposals is one, called “Concept 2” which would extend pricing to all lanes of these two major freeways.

The studies undertaken by the Oregon Department of Transportation conclude that congestion pricing could measurably reduce traffic congestion on I-5. The analysis concludes that the project would reduce congestion and improve travel time reliability on I-5.  It would save travel time for trucks and buses.  It enables higher speeds and greater throughput on the freeway–because it eliminates the hyper-congestion that occurs when roads are unpriced. Here’s an excerpt from page 17, of the report.  We highlighted in bold the most salient bits of the analysis:

Overall, Concept 2 – Priced Roadway, will reduce congestion for all travelers on the priced facility. This will produce overall improvement in travel time reliability and efficiency for all users of I-5 and I-205.  [Concept 2 is] Likely to provide the highest level of congestion relief of the initial pricing concepts examined. [It] Controls demand on all lanes and, therefore, allows the highest level of traffic management to maintain both relatively high speeds and relatively high throughput on both I-5 and I-205. Vehicles 10,000 pounds and more (such as many freight trucks and transit vehicles) would benefit from travel time improvements on the managed facilities.  Pricing recovers lost functional capacity due to hyper-congestion, providing greater carrying volume with pricing than without. This means that diversion impacts may be minimal, but still warrant consideration and study.

This concept is relatively inexpensive to implement, and significantly less expensive than concepts that include substantial physical improvements to the pavement and bridge infrastructure.

Oregon Department of Transportation,, (2018). Portland Metro Area Value Pricing Feasibility Analysis Final Round 1 Concept Evaluation and Recommendations Technical Memorandum #3, 2018.

Bottom line:  congestion pricing works better for freeway users, freight mobility, and transit riders; in keeps unpriced traffic from causing hyper-congestion and effectively and is vastly cheaper than building new lanes and bridges.  It is also likely to result in minimal, if any diversion to local streets.

Omitting pricing as an alternative in the Environmental Assessment violates the National Environmental Policy Act

This is clearly a viable alternative to widening the freeway at the Rose Quarter.  Viable is actually a significant understatement:  pricing isn’t simply a viable alternative, it’s arguably, on its face, a superior alternative).  But that’s beside the point.  From a legal standpoint, not seriously evaluating road pricing as an alternative to expensive, environmentally damaging road widening is violates NEPA’s requirement for a robust analysis of alternatives.

The substantive requirements for alternative analysis are spelled out in 40 CFR1502.  As explained by the Federal Highway Administration,

The Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) refers to the alternatives analysis section as the “heart of the EIS,” and requires agencies to:

1. Rigorously explore and objectively evaluate all reasonable alternatives and for alternatives which were eliminated from detailed study, briefly discuss the reasons for their having been eliminated.

2. Devote substantial treatment to each alternative considered in detail including the proposed action so that reviewers may evaluate their comparative merits.

The FHWA guidance requires that the agency clearly state the rationale for not advancing reasonable alternatives:

Alternatives analysis should clearly indicate why and how the particular range of project alternatives was developed, including what kind of public and agency input was used. In addition, alternatives analysis should explain why and how alternatives were eliminated from consideration. It must be made clear what criteria were used to eliminate alternatives, at what point in the process the alternatives were removed, who was involved in establishing the criteria for assessing alternatives, and the measures for assessing the alternatives’ effectiveness.

Nothing in the EA describes the criteria used to select or eliminate alternatives, nor is any analysis offered for the the failure to advance pricing as an alternative in its own right.  It’s simply arbitrary and capricious of the Oregon Department of TRansportation and the Federal Highway Administration to produce an Environmental Assessment which takes no notice of efforts they are both currently undertaking to implement road pricing on this very roadway.

Moreover, while NEPA requires that congestion pricing be evaluated separately as an alternative, it is also the case that road pricing ought to be incorporated in the analysis as part of the No-Build alternative.  The implementation of road pricing in the next decade or so is, in NEPA terms, a reasonably foreseeable event.  Just as the Environmental Analysis has incorporated its expectations about the growing electrification and increased fuel efficiency of future vehicles in its forecasts of emissions (due to the future implementation of fuel economy regulations), it should likewise include the analysis of congestion pricing, which is also a reasonably foreseeable part of the regulatory environment in the next decade or so.

Pricing first, building (if at all) later is the smarter choice

It’s likely that implementing road pricing would obviate entirely the need for capital construction at the Rose Quarter.  But even if it didn’t, it is far more prudent from both a fiscal and environmental standpoint to implement congestion pricing first, to determine which, if any, “improvements” are needed at the Rose Quarter to reduce congestion and improve safety. The “build first-price later” strategy is a recipe for squandering scarce public resources on roads that people don’t value and won’t use.  As we chronicled at City Observatory, Louisville spent a billion dollars adding capacity to its I-65 bridge over the Ohio River, only to discover that traffic volumes fell by almost half when they started charging a modest toll to bridge users.  It’s financially, as well as ecologically prudent to toll first, and then invest in capacity, when, were and as needed, only later.

Editor’s Note:  A hat tip to Portland transportation advocate Doug Allen for pointing us to Mr. Swenson’s testimony.  This post has been revised to provide an updated link to the consultant’s report.