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Can Portland’s Congestion Pricing Program Lead to Sustainable Transportation? by Kenny Key

Posted by: | March 18, 2011 Comments Off on Can Portland’s Congestion Pricing Program Lead to Sustainable Transportation? by Kenny Key |

A large part of “greening” built cities has to do with creating more sustainable transportation by shifting current needs and habits away from single-passenger commuting. Modern cities, such as San Francisco, London, Stockholm, and Milan, are increasingly looking into congestion pricing to create market-based incentives for community members to shift their transportation habits.[i] Congestion pricing has been defined as “charging drivers a user fee to drive in specific, congested areas or corridors, and using the revenue generated to fund transportation improvements, such as better transit service, road improvements, and bicycle and pedestrian projects.”[ii] However, these programs do not come without resistance, and fears from the business community.[iii] As Portland and other major cities look for ways to reduce the carbon footprint from the transportation sector, congestion pricing could play a major role in the transportation transformation. This post will examine case studies of cities implementing congestion pricing and analyze Portland’s current action under the requirements of the Jobs and Transportation Act (JTA) which was passed by Oregon’s legislature in 2009.[iv] While Portland has taken positive steps towards congestion pricing, its planned implementation fails to take into account the lessons learned from other cities.

            First, why is Portland looking into congestion pricing? Beyond the health and environmental reasons for such action, the JTA required the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) to implement at least one congestion pricing pilot program by September 28, 2012.[v] To meet this end ODOT established the Congestion Pricing Advisory Committee (CPAC) in July 2009.[vi] CPAC has narrowed down the pilot projects to three proposals: Cornelius Pass Road, OR 217 onramp, and City of Portland parking management.[vii] None of these proposals will meet the goals of the law or the sustainability objectives that should be its focus.[viii] Instead, they aim to target areas of high congestion that do not have reliable public transportation options, which will only divert traffic rather than reduce the number of cars on the road.

           Case Studies: Comparisons and Lessons

            Overseas, other cities have successfully implemented congestion pricing and Portland should learn from their lessons to become a leader of this policy in the United States. The two most studied cities that have implemented congestion pricing are Stockholm and London. These programs differ slightly, but each has seen traffic reduction, local economic benefits, and increased public transit ridership.[ix]

             In Stockholm, the pricing system works during the weekdays and has variable charges depending on the time of day. After initial public animosity, the pilot program was implemented and public support rose to two-thirds of the population.[x] The program was able to create 18 new bus lines and 2,800 new park-and-ride spaces. More importantly for long term success, the program was shown to have economic benefits for businesses inside the charge zone (this was a major concern before the program began[xi] and is an issue that needs to be addressed with local businesses if the program is to be successful in Portland). Sales for these businesses increased 5% as residents were encouraged to shop locally since the congestion charge was for both traffic entering and exiting the city center. Further, the local businesses were able to increase their deliveries by 25% due to the reduction in traffic.[xii]

             London had similar success with a slightly different system. Travelers to central London were charged a flat fee during weekdays.[xiii] The revenues from the program have led to road improvements and 14,000 new bus seats. Businesses inside the charge zone are growing twice as fast as comparable businesses outside the zone and the health effects of the reduction in cars has been estimated to have saved 1,888 years of life of London residents so far.[xiv]

            Both of these programs show the potential of congestion pricing models. Stockholm and London have reduced traffic by 22% and 30% respectively and gained net yearly revenues of $100 million and $216 million respectively. At the same time, local businesses have grown and greenhouse gas emissions have been reduced by 14% and 16% respectively.[xv] With a proper program, Portland has the chance to see similar results and continue to be a leader in US sustainability efforts. However, every city will have varying effects from congestion pricing and should tailor the system to the needs of the city. How the program is implemented can have a huge effect on the efficacy of system and the acceptance by users.

Portland’s Current Efforts: The Best Intentions . . .

            Congestion pricing in Portland is being worked on by the ODOT’s CPAC and is mentioned in the Portland Plan.[xvi] A policy assessment of the Portland Plan suggests further developing ideas for congestion pricing and including them in the overall plan, but lays out no specific recommendations as to where congestion pricing should be implemented.[xvii] As reductions in single-passenger automobile transportation will be key to meeting some of the sustainability goals of the city,[xviii] the hope would be that the committed groups working on the Portland Plan will push for a well-designed congestion pricing plan for Portland’s future.

            Currently, the CPAC is the most active group working on implementing congestion pricing. However, there are a few issues with their current proposals that could hinder the acceptance of congestion pricing in the areas that need it most. As shown in the case studies mentioned above, the most successful congestion pricing models have been developed to encompass a city center. For Portland this would mean implementing pricing stations at the major entrances to the downtown metro area.

            The currently proposed pilot sites, while aimed at areas of high congestion, are not in areas that have the holistic landscape to support the congestion pricing goals of lessening reliance on automobiles and increasing public transportation options. As the preliminary findings in the CPAC report suggest, due to the pilot’s location there will be the unintended consequence of higher traffic on other roads as drivers will adapt to find the least expensive route.[xix] This demeans the ultimate goal of reducing the amount of cars on the road by only reducing the amount of cars on a specific road. While this might raise revenues for the state and be more efficient for some drivers, it is not a model that can be supported by all stakeholders. Without having congestion pricing in areas that have reliable alternative transportation options (mass transit, biking, carpool, park and ride) car use will not be reduced, but rather an upset citizenry will be resourceful and use alternative routes or rebel against the fee added to their commute.

            The language in the law could be one reason why this is the case. The law states that the pilot program is needed to study the effects of congestion pricing on “reducing traffic congestion.”[xx] This is a great starting point, but to meet the sustainability needs of the region the language needs to be much more specific.[xxi] Language that aims to reduce traffic congestion “by reducing the total number of cars on the road,” or “by increasing public transportation ridership,” or “by reducing the amount of miles travelled per day per capita,” would all be preferred. The current language does not allow lawmakers the overall perspective necessary to achieve the sustainability goals, shown by the pilot program choosing options in areas that will only cause traffic to be diverted, not reduced.

            Further, the language of the law does not have a dedicated source where the funds generated from congestion pricing must be expended,[xxii] such as on mass transit infrastructure projects. This allows congestion pricing to be viewed as another revenue-generating option for the city instead of as a funding source for sustainable transportation options. As a revenue source alone, the incentives for lawmakers would be to place the toll centers in the areas where they can raise the most revenue, without factoring in whether the benefits to the users will ever be manifested. The predictable outcome will be public resentment toward such “taxes” on their driving because they will not be able to see the added benefits[xxiii] (such as those shown in the case studies mentioned above).

            Whatever the outcome of the pilot program, Portland should seriously consider congestion pricing in the downtown area as one means of helping reduce congestion and creating a more sustainable transportation network. Local businesses and industries need to get on board and realize that congestion pricing can have positive economic effects on downtown commerce. There no longer needs to be a choice between business growth and sustainable transportation measures. As shown by the case studies above, and a study done by the San Francisco County Transportation Authority,[xxiv] the effects of congestion pricing can both benefit business interests and improve the health of residents and the environment.

[i] San Francisco is considering implementation by 2015. London, Stockholm, Santiago, Singapore and Milan already have successful programs. S.F. County Transp. Authority, Mobility Access, and Pricing Study, Fact Sheet: Case Studies: Stockholm and London 1–2 (Nov. 2010) [hereinafter Fact Sheet]. Singapore has had a successful program since 1975. Chin Kian Keong, Singapore Land Transportation Authority, Road Pricing Singapore’s Experience 2 (Oct. 2002).  New York City is also considering resurrecting plans for congestion pricing. See http://newyork.cbslocal.com/2011/01/26/congestion-pricing-rises-from-the-dead/.

[ii] Fact Sheet, supra note 1, at 1.

[iii] See Glen Weisbrod & David Williams, Framework and Process for Economic Impact Assessment of Potential Highway Congestion Pricing and Tolling Schemes 4 (Nov. 15, 2010) (stating that the logical concern is that some people will shift their routes and thus shift where they spend money).

[iv] 2009 Or. Laws c. 865 (2009).

[v]  Id. § 3,4 (also found as note to Or. Rev. Stat. § 184.866 (2009)).

[vi] Or. Dept. of Transp., Congestion Pricing Pilot Program Report 1 (Nov. 30, 2010) [hereinafter ODOT].

[vii] Id. at 2.

[viii] City of Portland, Bureau of Planning, Comprehensive Plan Goals and Policies 45, 68 (Nov. 2003) (stating the goal is to “lesson the reliance on the automobile” and that congestion pricing should be implemented “where high-quality transportation alternatives to driving exist”).

[ix] Fact Sheet, supra note 1, at 1.

[x] Id.

[xi] Id. (stating that before implementation two-third of the public were against congestion pricing).

[xii] Fact Sheet, supra note 1, at 1.

[xiii] Id. at 2.

[xiv] Id. (the study also found that people taking public transportation or walking tended to spend more after the congestion charge was implemented then automobile drivers).

[xv] Id. at 1–2.

[xvi] The Portland Plan is aimed to analyze the problems the city faces now and in 25 years and come up with solutions. For more information go to http://www.portlandonline.com/portlandplan/.

[xvii] Sustainability Tech. Working Group, Portland Plan: Existing Policy Framework Assessment 1 (Jan. 9 2008).

[xviii] See supra note 6 and accompanying text.

[xix] ODOT, supra note 4, at 2–4.

[xx] 2009 Or. Law. c. 865 § 3(1).

[xxi] In fact, the bill was passed with the goal of transportation sustainability. Id. at pmbl. ¶ 5. Further other aspects of the bill call for reducing GHG emissions from light duty vehicles. Id. § 37 (2)(a).

[xxii] Id. at § 3(4)

[xxiii] As an example, see the comments following a news article about a congestion pricing expert’s presentation in Portland. Ari Phillips, What One Expert Thinks About Congestion Pricing in Portland, Willamette Week (Dec. 1, 2009) available at http://www.wweek.com/portland/blog-2867-what_one_expert_thinks_about_congestion_pricing_in.html. 

[xxiv] In the study economic impacts of congestion pricing were said to be neutral to positive. S.F. County Transp. Authority, Fact Sheet: Mobility, Access, and Pricing Study 1–2 (Dec. 2010) (finding that in San Francisco congestion pricing would reduce the costs associated with time lost due to congestion for individuals and businesses by over $2 billion dollars. Further, stating that increased foot traffic would lead to more retail activity).

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