21 Nov עופר איתן Suggest: Economist Joe Cortright addresses transportation issues and
Cortright: ‘I have no idea where it is they think they’re going to get the money for this’
Yesterday, Clark County Today published a story where economist Joe Cortright said Oregon and Washington were not obligated to pay back $140 million to the federal government if the states don’t follow through with a project to replace the Interstate 5 Bridge. Cortright claims the states could simply choose the “no build” option that was included in the NEPA environmental process.
Cortright went on to discuss many additional aspects of regional transportation issues. These included the seismic issues, transportation funding, tolling, Departments of Transportation (DOT), shopping in Oregon, and more.
Clark County Today also asked Cortright what he believed was driving the revival of the Columbia River Crossing (CRC).
“DOT’s love to build things,” he said. “This is the next big thing that they want to build. It’s always been on their agenda. Very big bridges are the epitome of the highway building art. So it doesn’t doesn’t at all surprise me that they’re trying to revive it.”
He then touched on the funding issues. “The nut that they haven’t cracked and they refuse to own up to, is answering the question ‘how are you going to pay for this?’” asked Cortright. “Who is going to pay for this?”
The CRC became a $3.5 billion proposal. When Washington walked away, it got “slimmed down” to a bit below $3 billion as Oregon briefly considered going it alone. But today it’s got to be at least $4 billion according to Cortright.
“That’s a heavy lift,” he said. “There isn’t $3 or $4 billion sitting around in either state’s transportation budget. In fact ODOT is already saying that due to the reduction of driving for COVID, they don’t have enough money to maintain existing roads.”
Gas tax revenues are in decline for both states.
“Where does this money come from,” he asked. “I think they’ve been a little bit more forthcoming this time and saying that we don’t get this without tolling. But you know, that’s what sank the project before. They never addressed tolling honestly.”
Cortright said about one third of the price of the CRC funding came from tolling. He said peak hour tolls for cars would be $3.60 cents each way, citing ODOT and their CDM Smith study. Others, including former Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt claimed they would be $8.
Cortright mentioned ODOT’s claim that the tolls would cause about half the vehicles to divert to I-205, because in the CRC, they planned to charge tolls only on I-5.
“They wanted to build a 12-lane bridge (6 in each direction), spent $3 Billion, and chased half the vehicles away, creating gridlock on I-205,” he said. “That was obvious to anyone who looked at the project in 2007 or 2008. And yet they waited five years to sort of deliver the truth.”
Cortright believes transportation officials need to address funding issues up front, before they get to a specific project.
“I think you have to start with that and say, if you want a new bridge somebody has got to pay for it. The people who use it are going to have to pay for at least a portion of it. Given the price that we would charge, would enough people use it to justify building it?’’
“I think the strategy of the DOT on both this project and the (I-5) Rose Quarter, is to say well, we’ll build it first and then we’ll talk about tolls,” Cortright said. “As an economist, that was just nutty.”
He addressed the question of how many lanes are needed across the river.
“You need a very different number of lanes depending on whether you charge a toll or not,” he said. “If you charge a toll (right now) you probably have plenty of freeway capacity across the river, especially if it varies by time of day.”
Cortright supports “time of day tolling” where you move vehicles away from the peak hours. He believes there are a lot of people who have enough flexibility to travel at different times.
“For those who must make a trip at a certain time, they pay three and a half dollars at the peak and $1 or nothing at the off peak,” he said. “I think what tolling does is it allows people who have put a high value on their time to purchase a fast and reliable travel time. That is something you don’t have the option to buy now.“
One of the challenges of tolling is that it causes traffic diversion, as people seek to avoid paying the tolls. ODOT shared in their Value Pricing PAC meetings, 80,000 vehicles are presently diverting onto side roads. They expect an additional 50,000 vehicles to divert onto side roads when both I-5 and I-205 are tolled.
Cortright believes we people need to be encouraged to make their trips at different times, when the roads are less congested.
“An interesting thing about the dynamics of traffic is you don’t have to get a whole lot of cars off the road to get much better service,” he said. “If we were to reduce traffic volumes at the peak hour by about 10 to 15 percent, we get free flow speeds.”
Some people will challenge that by pointing out significant parts of I-5 are congested nearly half the day. People are already adjusting their travel times, and yet roads remain congested. In 2017 ODOT reported “traffic congestion in the Portland region can now occur at any hour of the day, including holidays and weekends,” the report said. “It is no longer only a weekday peak hour problem.”
“There’s a lot of…