With time running short for the Columbia River Crossing, Oregon is working on a tolling plan that would allow the state to suspend the driver's licenses of out-of-state toll scofflaws.
Proponents of the $2.8 billion I-5 bridge and freeway expansion will need a big boost from the Oregon Legislature and the Washington Department of Licensing for that to happen.
According to a just-issued opinion from the Oregon Department of Justice, the CRC proponents need the Oregon Legislature to pass a new law and Washington to change an administrative rule for the plan to work.
"Implementation of such an agreement requires new Oregon legislation designating toll violations as traffic violations subject to citation," said DOJ attorney Steven Wolf in a letter dated Feb. 5.
The Washington State Attorney General recently opined that the current plan would require the Washington Department of Licensing to change its own rules.
Oregon was forced to dive into the fine points of toll collection and enforcement after Washington dropped out as an equal partner in the $3.6 billion CRC last summer. Until then, the plan had been for Washington, which already collects tolls on two of its major bridges, to handle it. A downsized $2.8 billion project, with Oregon going in alone, was subsequently floated.
Tolling presents big legal and political challenges, not to mention daunting logistical issues. A viable tolling plan will require that Oregon have the right to go into Washington to collect toll payments. That infuriates some Washingtonians who argue that it's not right that they partially bankroll a transportation project their state has chosen not to participate in.
The CRC would use an electronic system without tollbooths. Proponents are counting on most local bridge users to open an account with the toll system. The system would recognize and count each crossing and automatically toll payments.
A small percentage of drivers will not pay. And a good share of those drivers will likely reside in Southwest Washington as two-thirds of the bridge's total traffic comes from the north side of the river.
Treasurer Ted Wheeler has insisted Oregon and Washington agree on a toll enforcement strategy before going ahead with a project. It was Wheeler who requested Wednesday's opinion.
Wheeler seemed reassured by the DOJ letter. "We are not attorneys, but it seems like there is a path to legal enforceability," said Wheeler spokesman James Sinks. "We are not aware of the status of negotiations."
Tolling is one of a bevy of issues facing the CRC. The Legislature must reauthorize Oregon's $450 million initial contribution to the project in its current short session. But the Oregon-only plan and the associated financial risks have plainly spooked some lawmakers.