Tolling to support CRC backed at hearing

Pridemore legislation advances ahead of deadline

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor

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State lawmakers discussed again on Monday the idea of tolling to pay for part of a new bridge over the Columbia River.

Two proposals are before lawmakers that would make the Columbia River Crossing mega-project eligible for tolling. State transportation officials said they need state permission to toll in order to have a better chance at scoring federal funding for the project.

Senate Bill 6445, sponsored by state Sen. Craig Pridemore, D-Vancouver, was advanced out of the Senate Transportation Committee on Monday, ahead of a crucial cutoff date. Friday was the last day lawmakers could pass legislation out of many committees, but the cutoff for proposals in the transportation and fiscal committees is the end of the day Tuesday.

Transportation Committee Chairwoman Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, urged passage of the bill. She said that if the Legislature doesn’t approve it, the CRC project might drop down on the federal funding list.

“We’re really at the top of the list now,” Haugen said.

The House companion bill, House Bill 2676, received a public hearing on Monday before the House Transportation Committee.

Both bills would make the project highly competitive for federal grant money, Washington Transportation Secretary Paula Ham

mond said during the hearing. She added that federal transportation officials have “indicated support for the project to include tolling.” The department is involved in a multistep application process for $850 million in New Starts program money through the Federal Transit Authority.

Oregon’s transportation officials already have the authority to establish tolls. The Columbia River Crossing plan depends on funds from Oregon, Washington, the federal government, and from tolling. Washington’s contribution will need to be about $450 million, Hammond said.

A few others showed up to testify during the hearing, and all of them expressed support for the bill.

Rick Wickman, a lobbyist representing Identity Clark County, described the legislation as a policy bill.

“We have to have this to begin, but there’s going to be a lot of steps to go in the future,” Wickman said. Identity Clark County is a civic group that supports the bridge. Its membership includes Columbian Publisher Scott Campbell.

Hammond said she envisions tolling on the new bridge would use the state’s Good to Go program, which allows drivers to put a sticker on their car that is read electronically. Those without passes would have their license plate read and be billed by mail, so the project wouldn’t require any toll booths.

Other issues to consider are whether there would be different rates depending on the time of day drivers pass over the bridge, if tolling should start when construction begins, and whether tolls would need to be increased over time, those testifying said.

Hammond said she expects a more comprehensive discussion about tolling to take place during the next legislative session. The next step for the state’s Department of Transportation is to come back to lawmakers to discuss toll revenue bonds.

State transportation officials also would plan to host public forums in Southwest Washington to hear from communities impacted by tolling.

Pridemore said during the Senate hearing on the proposal last month that tolling is the best option for the local contribution to the project, because it would collect money from out-of-towners, including truck drivers, who pass over the bridge.

Stevie Mathieu: 360-735-4523 or stevie.mathieu@columbian.com or www.facebook.com/reportermathieu or www.twitter.com/col_politics.