Toll lessons learned after the election

By John Laird, Columbian Editorial Page Editor

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photoJohn Laird is The Columbian's editorial page editor. His column of personal opinion appears each Sunday. Reach him at john.laird@columbian.com.

Wednesday afternoon, Royce Pollard answered my first question in our telephone interview: “I feel great!” Much better, apparently, than a day earlier, Tuesday morning, when he told Bob Miller in a KPAM-860 radio interview: “I want to puke.”

My question was a polite inquiry about the former Vancouver mayor’s health. Miller’s question on the radio was more to the point: How did Pollard feel about Tim Leavitt’s switcheroo on bridge tolls? Last year, Leavitt ousted Pollard from his 14-year mayor’s job largely on the strength of a no-tolls vow but recently admitted that tolls would, indeed, be needed. Predictably, Leavitt’s post-election conversion has unleashed the Hounds of Whinerville, who used to carry Leavitt around on their shoulders but now want to carry him out of town on a rail.

Pollard told me that Leavitt had “duped the citizens of America’s Vancouver.” He also told Miller that Leavitt “checked his honesty and integrity at the door somewhere way back down the line … people bought that bull … this was a campaign based on a lie.”

But Pollard doesn’t want his old job back. He’s too busy volunteering for community endeavors. It took him a couple of months to get over the depression of losing the mayoral election, he said. “Let me be clear,” he told me, “I lost the election and I’ve accepted that. It’s time to move on, and I’ve got no intention of running for office. Ever.”

Two valuable lessons from this latest episode in our local bridge saga are not so much about campaigns or elections. They’re about tolls and power.

Bridge tolls sublimely exemplify the user-pays form of public funding, a concept that works well in some cases such as parks, golf courses, fishing licenses and other discretionary activities. But in more basic areas such as police protection and public education, it’s best to spread the funding burden throughout the community, even among nonusers.

Here’s an advantage of bridge tolls that doesn’t draw much attention. Clearly, a local contribution will be necessary for a new bridge. Tolls will meet that standard. But are they really local? Transportation officials tell me that about 8 percent of vehicles using the bridge are large trucks, many on long trips. In most tolling situations around the country, large trucks pay double or triple the tolls that small vehicles pay.

So, if Bubba rolls his big rig full of turnips from Seattle to Sacramento and wants to help us meet our local bridge contribution, at double or triple the cost of a car crossing, I say let him!

That’s a far better plan than the scheme Leavitt is proposing, a hideous expansion of user-pays into a network of tolling. According to “A New Approach to Tolling” on Leavitt’s blog, “if we must have tolls, then we should assess those tolls at each on- or off-ramp of the bridge influence area so that all users of the corridor will contribute to the local financing of the improvements, not just those users crossing the Columbia River.”

So, the same guy who vowed last year to fight tolls on just a bridge now would have them assessed along a five-mile freeway. As I see it, instead of a tolled bridge, we’d have a turnpike.

Power? What power?

The second lesson involves mayoral power. The great irony in this story is that Vancouver has a city-manager form of government, also known as the weak-mayor system. The mayor has no more power than other city council members. And when it comes to influencing bridge tolls, the Vancouver mayor’s efforts are about as authoritative as Barney Fife hanging the jail keys where Otis could let himself in and out of the cell.

In his blog post, Leavitt even confessed this mayoral inertia: “It has become apparent that tolling has been widely accepted by the project partners, community advocates, business and economic leadership and, most importantly, our state legislators (who make the final decision about tolling).” Very perceptive … post-election.

Friends, if you didn’t understand all of this when you voted for Leavitt, if instead of doing your homework you just fell in with the folks hoisting Leavitt upon their shoulders, then I’d say the person who is most responsible for your high blood pressure is not the politician. It’s the sucker in the mirror.