Voters’ passage of Initiative 1185 last fall means the authority legislators gave the state Transportation Commission to impose tolls on the Columbia River Crossing will need further approval from state lawmakers, Julie Murray, legislative director with the state’s Office of Financial Management, told Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, in a March 8 letter.
Although Roach described Murray's letter as a blow to tolling projects, including the CRC, Transportation Commission Director Reema Griffith seemed unfazed and said the commission will seek legislative approval to toll the CRC during a future legislative session. Griffith said she expects the Legislature to, as it has in the past, return tolling authority back to the Transportation Commission.
"Nothing has changed really," Griffith said. The commission will still work with Oregon on rate-setting and go back to Washington state lawmakers later to get the legal authority to establish tolls on the CRC.
The tolling authority given to the CRC project by the 2012 Legislature, along with several other tolling-related bills, “were impacted by I-1185 and would therefore require new legislative approval if the agency were to impose or increase the fee,” Murray wrote in her letter to Roach.
The initiative requires that the Legislature must improve all new fees or increases in fees, and that includes tolling. Each new toll or tolling increase would need to receive support from more than 50 percent of the legislators in each chamber.
Last year, the Legislature passed a law that gave the state’s Transportation Commission the authority to set tolls on the CRC, but specific toll rates were never set. Now the Legislature has the responsibility of approving tolls instead of leaving it up to the Transportation Commission, Roach said.
“It's a resetting of the clock, taking us back to what the framers of the Constitution had in mind, which would be that legislators would be the ones who vote yea or nay to raise tolls,” she said in a press conference today.
Roach had requested an informal opinion on the matter from the state attorney general’s office, prompting the reply from Murray.
I-1185 also required a two-thirds yes vote in both legislative chambers in order for state lawmakers to raise taxes. The state Supreme Court recently struck down the initiative’s two-thirds majority rule, but not other parts of the initiative, including majority approval of new fees or fee increases by the legislature.
Initiatives cannot be changed without a two-thirds majority vote in both houses during the first two years after their passage, unless they are overturned by the courts.
The $3.4 billion CRC project would replace the Interstate 5 Bridge over the Columbia River, update nearby freeway interchanges and extend light rail from Portland to Vancouver.
Roach said she couldn’t specifically answer questions about the CRC losing out on federal funding if the Legislature doesn’t approve tolls for the CRC, but she did say she believed “logically, it might. ... It may cause that the project may be honed down, made more appropriate for the area, more acceptable to the people, and I think that would be a good byproduct of 1185.”
Griffith said she expects the Legislature to restore the Transportation Commission's authority to set tolls and toll increases based on a mathematical formula, rather than leaving it up to political whims in the Legislature. She added that no other state in the nation allows their legislature to set tolls and that allowing an independent agency to determine toll rates is standard practice.
Lucas Wiseman contributed to this story.