Johnson Creek Blvd. Traffic Calming from Carlotta Collette

Dear Friends and Neighbors

How many times have you said: “I wish we could just put up a toll booth on Johnson Creek Boulevard and charge everyone cutting through our neighborhood”?

Living on the boulevard, I’ve said it a lot and heard it said often as well.

Well here’s the deal: we could actually get a pilot tolling project on the boulevard if we’re interested. We will need to request it and write the conditions under which we’d accept it, but we could be the first community in the region to toll people cutting through our neighborhood if we are interested.

Here’s the story:

When the legislature passed the Jobs and Transportation bill in the last session, there was a component that called for a “congestion pricing” pilot project to be implemented in the region within the next three years. The legislative intent was to set up a tolling project to reduce congestion on one of our freeways. This has been done successfully in many places around the world, but never in the Portland area. The idea is that by charging a toll with variable pricing depending on whether it is rush hour or not people might drive at different times of the day or on different routes. This is much cheaper than adding additional lanes to freeways just to accommodate rush hour traffic, which doesn’t work anyway because the traffic just increases and fills the new lanes.

As the discussion around the table has gone forward, it became clear that no major road congestion pricing project could be implemented within the three year time constraint, so ODOT has been looking for other options. One they are considering is changing the one HOV (high occupancy vehicle) lane in the city – the one heading north on I-5 approaching Vancouver, into a HOT (high occupancy/tolling) lane. This approach has been used quite a lot elsewhere, but it’s not really the best opportunity for a pilot project where the intent is to get information about how people respond to having to pay to drive at certain times or in certain places. There are a couple of other options they are considering as well.

As some of you may know, as part of my role as a Metro councilor, I chair the region’s Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation, which makes most of the decisions on how transportation dollars from the federal government are spent in our region. I also get to sit in on some of these other discussions around state dollars.

As I listened to some of these conversations I asked whether it might be possible to use this pilot project approach to try to reduce cut-through traffic on a neighborhood collector that is treated as a major throughway. My point was that our neighborhood safety and the quality of life in some of our communities is a worthwhile reason to test tolling, and it could be a much smaller scale and more cost-effective approach. We would learn much of what the pilot is intended to explore – whether people would change their driving habits if they had to pay a premium to take the short cut or drive at rush hour. If it doesn’t work, or people really are opposed to it, it’s pretty easy to pull the equipment out.

I guess no one had thought of this more limited approach. ODOT had a consultant that studied every tolling project in the world and there is only one example, in Rome, where they used this approach to limit access through a neighborhood. Eventually, folks around the table started to like the idea, and the sponsoring legislator really likes it.

A number of streets have been suggested, and I added Johnson Creek Boulevard into the mix. There are some good reasons to select JCB.

* We are within blocks of a school, and the speed and amount of traffic is a real hazard for kids

* The boulevard already has far more traffic than it is designed to carry and the new light rail station will increase the traffic

* This is a street that has significant impacts on one of our region’s few free-flowing salmon bearing streams – Johnson Creek

* There is a commercial area just below us – Sellwood – that is trying to reduce cut-through traffic on its main street, which happens to be the extension of JCB (this is also an argument against JCB from businesses down there who would balk at potentially losing customers)

* There are alternative routes – highway 224 to the south and Powell Boulevard to the north – that are designed to take the through traffic

* There are alternative modes of travel – light rail on 205, frequent buses (the 75 line) and the Springwater Corridor for bikes and walking

* It would be relatively easy and inexpensive to install a tolling gantry on the 32nd Street bridge so tolling would not interfere with the industrial area and jobs east of 45th

* The neighborhood has been asking for traffic calming for decades with little response from the various jurisdictions because, frankly, it’s really hard to fix without tolling people.

So here’s how it could work: Cars would not have to stop at the tolling equipment (called a gantry). Neighborhood residents would get an in-car transponder that would signal every time we pass under the gantry. Whether we would pay a reduced rate or pass free is probably up to us, since this is a voluntary pilot project. Regular commuters not from our neighborhood could purchase a transponder (photo below) and pay a monthly fee or get charged for every trip. Irregular drivers who don’t have a transponder would have their license plate photographed like we do with photo-enforced speed limits, and they’d receive a bill in the mail.

The revenues from the tolling may not be that significant if it really works (meaning people would take other routes). But if revenues are significant one option I’d be interested in proposing is that we would use the money to get a direct bus between Clackamas Town Center, to the light rail station on Fuller Road, then down JCB to the new light rail station to be built at Tacoma, then either to downtown Portland or across town to Washington Square. That would give commuters a transit option to enable them to leave their cars on either end of JCB.

This idea has been described as pretty “out of the box,” but if the neighborhood is interested in pursuing it, I think we have a good chance of making it happen. The Johnson Creek Boulevard Congestion Pricing Pilot Project is currently on a list of options being considered, and frankly, it makes the most sense to a lot of us.

But what do you all think?

I’d be happy to answer your questions and explore your ideas both through emails and at the next neighborhood meeting. The sooner I start getting a sense of the neighborhood’s interest the better. Please let me know how you feel. Keep in mind that if we try this out and it doesn’t work in our best interest we can have it pulled out. We could, and I believe we should, set our own requirement for how this works. We should, for example, set a time limit – say somewhere between six months and a year – after which we revisit the project and decide if it is working and whether or not we want to keep it. We can require that residents of Johnson Creek Boulevard and 32nd at a minimum have either reduced or no tolls. We can decide if we want tolls all the time or just during rush hour. And we can have some say in how much the tolls are.

So what do you think?

Carlotta Collette
3905 SE Johnson Creek Boulevard
Milwaukie, Oregon 97222