A bill to give state transportation officials the authority to create tolls for a new Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River passed the Senate on Tuesday morning on a 33-15 vote.
State transportation officials have said they need state permission to toll the Columbia River Crossing project in order to have a better chance at scoring federal funding for the project.
Two amendments were approved with the proposal on Tuesday. One would prohibit tolling on Interstate 205 — something transportation officials say they don’t plan to do. The other amendment would place a $3.4 billion spending limit on the entire project, but lawmakers could always decide to change that limit in the coming years.
State Sen. Craig Pridemore, D-Vancouver, sponsored the bill. Sens. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, and Joseph Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, voted against it.
Benton said on Tuesday that most agree that the bridge needs to be replaced. But he said those planning the project haven’t been frugal with taxpayer money during the development phase.
During a hearing on the bill earlier in the 60-day legislative session, Washington Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond said federal transportation officials have indicated they will support a Columbia River Crossing project that includes tolling. She also said that if Washington state lawmakers don’t approve tolling, the crossing could drop down the priority list of projects receiving federal money.
The department is involved in a multistep application process for $850 million in New Starts program money through the Federal Transit Administration.
Pridemore said Southwest Washington residents will need to contribute some money to help pay for the project. So, if they don’t pay through tolls, they could be paying in other ways, such as through property tax increases.
“Tolling is a better option because it includes more people, including people outside our region,” Pridemore said Tuesday. Tolls would collect money from out-of-towners, including truck drivers passing over the bridge, he says.
Pridemore also said the project would generate 16,000 construction jobs while the bridge is being built.
“This is without a doubt the most ambitious and most expensive public works project in the history of Southwest Washington,” Pridemore said prior to the vote. “It is vital to moving freight throughout the region,” and it will benefit the local economy for years to come, he said.
If the bill passes, state transportation officials would plan to host public forums in Southwest Washington to hear from communities impacted by tolling. They also would discuss the details of how the toll would work, including when tolls would begin, if rates would change based on time of day, and whether tolls would increase over time.
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.
“I am very concerned we’re getting the horse before the cart on this project,” Benton said, adding that he feels as if federal transportation officials are “holding the state hostage” when it comes to tolling.
The legislation, Senate Bill 6445, now goes to the House, where it must advance through the transportation committee and be voted on by the entire House.
Stevie Mathieu: 360-735-4523 or firstname.lastname@example.org or www.facebook.com/reportermathieu or www.twitter.com/col_politics