In our view: Paying for Projects

Recent statewide survey about tollsis interesting, but consider additional facts

Published:

 

Toll polls are interesting and revealing, but also deserving of close analysis to prevent jumping to conclusions. Last week, a Columbian story reported on recent findings by the Washington Transportation Commission on the controversial subject of tolls. The commission’s survey listed statewide as well as regional results.

Basically, the survey involving 5,518 respondents showed 59 percent favoring tolls as a means of funding large transportation projects. That’s not surprising, as most people realize that roads, bridges and other transportation projects must be paid for in some manner. And, the user-pays concept of tolls is less painful than tax increases or higher fees on the entire motoring public. But, narrowing the focus to our corner of the state, the survey showed just 43 percent support for tolls among respondents in Southwest Washington. That, too, is not surprising, as the Columbia River Crossing has made tolls a white-hot political issue in Clark County and beyond.

But we caution readers about the first word in the previous paragraph — “Basically” — and we offer the these additional observations about tolling and surveys:

Transportation tolls are like visits to the dentist. Our unscientific projection is that 100 percent of folks don’t like paying tolls or getting cavities filled. In the context of necessities, though, most people understand that tolls are the “least bad” way to pay for transportation projects. When kept as low as possible, tolls are generally accepted by drivers.

Interestingly, a related follow-up question in the statewide survey carried this statement: “One argument for using tolls to help pay for major state projects is that those who use and benefit the most from a project pay a bigger share of the cost. That means that less money is required from the rest of the state.” With that additional qualifier, the commission reported what it calls an “informed support.” And in that context, results in Southwest Washington changed to an even split, 48 percent to 48 percent. Using that standard, we wonder if Southwest Washingtonians really do oppose tolling. (The “informed support” statewide shot up from 59 percent to 66 percent).

It’s true, ours is the only region among Washington’s 14 where support of tolling fell below 50 percent. It’s also true that the next-lowest support was in the Benton-Franklin-Walla Walla region where 53 percent of respondents think tolling is a good idea. But what’s also unique about our region is that about 60,000 people here commute to jobs in another state and must pay Oregon state income tax even though they reside in Washington.

Could that have affected survey participants’ thinking? There’s no way of telling. But we suspect that if this question were asked — Do you support tolls on top of paying income taxes to a state in which you don’t reside? — the statewide results might have been different.

Understandably missing from the survey — because no one knows the details yet — was any mention of the amount of tolls. If a toll is a dime — or 10 bucks — our expectation is that survey results could vary wildly.

Because surveys are interesting and revealing, the Legislature this week is examining results of the tolling survey. Ultimately, the commission will set tolling rates for the Columbia River Crossing.

Through December, you’re invited to participate in the commission’s broader “State Transportation Survey.” Visit http://voiceofwashingtonsurvey.org.