Leavitt backs off his anti-tolling stance on I-5 bridge

Mayor adds that local traffic on both sides should also help pay

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A new bridge across the Columbia River won’t get built without tolls, Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt acknowledged Friday.

Instead, he argued for a “more stable, more equitable financing plan” that wouldn’t rely solely on tolls collected at the bridge. Instead, Leavitt suggested spreading the burden to motorists who will benefit from five miles of freeway improvements on both sides of the Columbia without necessarily crossing the river.

“Folks could get on and off in the ‘bridge influence area’ and not get on the bridge,” Leavitt said Friday during a meeting of bridge project sponsors in Vancouver.

Leavitt is effectively reversing the anti-tolling stance that helped propel him into office last November.

Leavitt acknowledged Friday that the state Legislature authorizes tolls and the state Transportation Commission sets the rates. Even so, he had vowed during his campaign against incumbent Royce Pollard that he would fight as a voice for the estimated 60,000 Clark County residents who cross the river to work in Oregon.

“It’s becoming painfully apparent that I’m on the losing end of an effort to implement improvements in the Interstate 5 corridor without a local financing piece that will have a direct impact on the wallets of Clark County commuters,” he said in an e-mail Friday. “The tool that everybody else is locked into is tolls.”

Leavitt is now suggesting a form of point-access tolling, which would assess a fee for any single-occupant vehicle that enters the corridor. He specifically mentioned Oregonians who drive on I-5 between Marine Drive and Hayden Island, although the same burden would theoretically apply to travel between state Highway 500 and downtown Vancouver.

“By better capturing tolls from users south of the river, and thus broadening the base of collection, my hope is that tolls placed at the bridge crossing can be limited,” Leavitt said.

Leavitt noted that the Columbia River Crossing project includes plenty of interchange improvements beyond the bridge itself, including refinements intended to lessen the bridge’s hulking footprint on Hayden Island.

Project planners anticipate splitting costs among the federal government, the two states and money generated by tolling. Now estimated to cost between $2.6 billion and $3.6 billion, the project includes a replacement for the twin three-lane drawbridges across the river, an extension of Portland’s light rail transit system into downtown Vancouver, and freeway interchange improvements between state Highway 500 and Marine Drive in Portland.

On the campaign trail, Leavitt suggested boosting the federal share while paring back the project’s ambitions.

“I’ve come to the realization that the costs and parameters of this project cannot be pared enough to prevent the need for local financing,” he said Friday.

The mayor floated his alternate approach near the end of a meeting of local elected leaders and state transportation officials at the Washington State Department of Transportation offices in Vancouver.

Leavitt said afterward that he believes it’s the best way to minimize the financial burden on Clark County commuters.

“This approach to tolling represents a broader application of traffic demand management, broadens the base of financial participation, and might just pay off the bonds for the improvements more quickly, thus reducing the overall cost of the project,” he said.

Erik Robinson: 360-735-4551, or erik.robinson@columbian.com.