Would Columbia River Crossing cater to rich drivers?



Would the Columbia River Crossing be a bridge used primarily by the One Percent?

A new U.S. Department of Transportation study of who is and isn’t paying tolls to use Seattle’s 520 floating bridge suggests that supporters of the controversial proposal to replace the Interstate Bridge should look hard and long at that question.

The federal study has found that the use of Washington’s 520 Bridge over Lake Washington, the world’s longest floating bridge, has fallen by at least half.

Seattle’s KOMO TV News got its hands on the unreleased study and reported:

According to the new data, almost 9 in 10 drivers who stopped using the 520 bridge said they did so to avoid the tolls, which are more than $3.

The study also shows that the impact of the toll is hitting lower-income households the hardest.

Here’s the breakdown: drivers with household incomes of less than $50,000 avoid the bridge, while drivers with household incomes of $200,000 or more say they don’t mind the tolls. In fact, affluent drivers say their satisfaction while using the bridge has increased.

Of course, the study apparently didn’t look into whether lower income drivers are paying as much or more for extra gas to take alternate routes around the tolls.

On the surface, the study seems to give credence to Portland economist Joe Cortright’s prediction that a tolled I-5 span over the Columbia River between Portland and Vancouver would shift traffic to the toll-free I-205 bridge.

However, the USDOT study failed to find any solid evidence of a mass exodus of 520 bridge drivers to alternate east-west routes such as the nearby Interstate 90 floating bridge, where some state officials would also like to set tolls.

Actually, according to the research, the tolls — ranging from $0 for late night and early morning travelers to $5.25 for rush-hour commuters – has boosted transit ridership. (And that, Vancouver light rail opponents, is why federal funding rules require mass transit options on big urban bridge projects.)

So, the CRC would arguably be a boon for TriMet and C-Tran.

The federal study shows that overall commuting over Lake Washington has plummeted 20 percent since tolling began.

Tolling on the 520 bridge is one five USDOT congestion-rpicing demonstration projects under a $1 billion Urban Partnerships Congestion Initiative.

Just as Oregon’s supporters of the CRC want to charge tolls on the old I-5 bridge as they build the new one, the 520 tolls are helping pay for a replacement span.

Update: Here’s the PowerPoint presentation of the study given to WSDOT congestion-pricing planners this week. Another interesting highlight: The tolling on the 520 Bridge appears to be having a disproportionate effect on how working class white males commute in a state that already has one of the most regressive tax systems in the country.