Shocking news: Tolls are a tradition!

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As the Columbia River Crossing continues its march (slog?) through a torturous maze of bureaucratic complexities, fear mongers are stoking a strange myth. Many of the torch lighters and pitchfork pounders would have you believe tolls are a new and hideous harbinger of creeping socialism. Toss in a heavy dose of Vancouver vs. Portland class warfare and you’ve got what appears to be a compelling argument against the new bridge, at least as plans have evolved to this point.

Truth be known, tolls have been a routine means of paying for transportation infrastructure in this region for more than 160 years. On Oct. 24, John Terry — retired copy editor for The Oregonian and a member of the Oregon Geographic Names Board — wrote a column for The O that provides a delightful read about the old Santiam Wagon Road that opened in 1868. The route roughly parallels today’s U.S. Highway 20 from Corvallis to Bend, between Mount Jefferson and Mount Washington. The Santiam Wagon Road was added to the National Register of Historic Places on Sept. 23.

Tolls for that early pass through the Cascades were enough to send today’s bridge protesters into apoplexy: $6 for large wagons; $2 for small wagons; $1 for horse and rider; 37 cents per cow; 10 cents each for sheep and hogs. Tolls were reduced in subsequent years.

Terry wrote about the 1905 arrival at the tollgate of a strange new contraption that was unlisted on the toll chart, a 7-horsepower Oldsmobile: “Noting that horses and cattle were giving the automobile a wide berth, (the toll collector) classified it as a ‘road hog’ and assessed the going rate (at that time) for a pig: 3 cents.”

Tolls were dropped on the Santiam Wagon Road in 1921. U.S. 20 was completed through Santiam Pass in 1939.

Oregon Trail homestretch

Predating the Santiam Wagon Road by more than two decades was the even more historic Barlow Road, which allowed Oregon Trail adventurers to avoid the perilous rafting trip down the Columbia River from The Dalles to Fort Vancouver. Sam Barlow led the grueling 1846 project that carved a road through forests on the southern flanks of Mount Hood, then down the 60 percent grade of the “Laurel Hill Chute” (wagons were lowered by ropes) and finally into Oregon City.

The toll on the Barlow Road for each wagon was $5, about a week’s wages according to a National Park Service archives story, plus 10 cents per animal. Today’s anti-tollsters will correctly point out that this was a one-time toll for Oregon Trail travelers, a far cry from what would be required of regular commuters on a new I-5 bridge. But the theory remains solid: There’s nothing wrong with asking the users of roads or bridges to pay part of the costs of the infrastructure. Barlow Road tolls were lowered in later years and ultimately dropped. Today’s Mount Hood Loop Highway follows much of the old trail. The Laurel Hill grade has been reduced to 6 percent.

The 20th century brought tolls upon cars and trucks, and as long-time local residents know, today’s Interstate 5 Bridge had tolls during two periods. The first span opened in 1917 with tolls of 5 cents per person; the tolls were later dropped. When the second span opened in 1958, tolls were 20 cents for cars, 40 cents for light trucks and 60 cents for heavy trucks and buses. Those tolls lasted until 1966.

To the north, starting on July 1, 1940, tolls were charged on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. Four months later, some passengers got more than just a bridge crossing for their money. “Galloping Gertie” crashed into Puget Sound. The replacement bridge (today’s westbound bridge) was tolled for 15 years. A companion bridge opened on July 15, 2007, and tolls of $4 at a manual toll booth ($2.75 per transponder for regular users) are charged on eastbound traffic only. Today’s anti-tollsters will alarmedly and accurately point to recent advice from an advisory committee that “photo tolling” be offered in Tacoma with a toll of $7.

No toll booths are planned for a new I-5 bridge, and projected tolls are unofficial, starting generally in the $2 to $3 range, varying according to hours.

Best I can determine, pigs and cows will cross for free.