The news arrived last week under the headline, "Analysis says tolls can make CRC financially viable." That's a big story. That's an important story. That's a story that might as well have said, "Sticking a pencil in your eye can cause some damage."
Because — as one of life's most important lessons teaches us — just because you can do something doesn't mean that you should.
So, as we revive the debate over the Columbia River Crossing, as we renew the questions about whether or not we ever will replace the Interstate 5 Bridge, it gives us a sense of déjà vu all over again. Oregon officials have delivered an "investment-grade" analysis of prospective tolls on a new bridge, which for some reason is better than all the other analyses over the past 15 years. And the study has declared that tolls can raise between $1.35 billion and $1.57 billion in net revenue between now and 2060 — enough to make an Oregon-only project viable.
That might or might not be true. So before we get to the crux of the CRC argument, let's talk about tolls. I think we need a new bridge; I think anybody pondering what this community will look like in 20 or 30 or 70 years will conclude that we need a new bridge. If Vancouver wants to build a transformational billion-dollar development along the Columbia River, it would look silly to have a century-old monolith connecting the city to the rest of the world. And anybody who says we can build a bridge without tolls is either naive or disingenuous.
A bridge is a necessity, and tolls will be part of that reality. But they wouldn't have to be in place for 45 years if we built a bridge without light rail. That brings us to the more important part of the debate: To me, the notion that we must include light rail on that bridge is difficult to defend.
Portland has spent billions on light rail, and still the system is beyond walking distance for a majority of the city's residents. The transportation goals of light rail could be accomplished much more cheaply and effectively — and with more flexibility — by using buses. For example, a study by Randal O'Toole of the Cato Institute (admittedly an anti-light-rail libertarian think tank) found that light rail costs between 14 times and 35 times as much to move people as highways.
If Portland's light rail is a boondoggle, despite a population density of 4,375 people per square mile, the problems will be exacerbated in Vancouver with its density of 3,482 people per square mile. Or consider this: Last summer, a friend of mine visited Paris and posted a glowing review of the city's mass-transportation system, wondering why we can't have that in Vancouver. Well, the answer is that Paris has 55,000 residents per square mile; it's not difficult to understand the difference.
A difference of opinion
Now, that's just my opinion. Reasonable, intelligent, informed people might reach a different conclusion, and many of them have. The thinking is that light rail will be a boon to central Vancouver and will better connect the city to Portland. There are good intentions behind such opinions, and future growth and development on this side of the river will be contingent upon being part of the Portland metropolis rather than an outlying suburb.
Because of that, I fear that Washington's decision to take its ball and go home is going to leave it permanently on the sidelines. If the Oregon Legislature manages to come up with money for the CRC this year — still a long shot by all indications — then Oregon will have complete control over the project and any accompanying tolls. Considering that an estimated two-thirds of the tolls would be paid by Washington residents, this reflects a dereliction of duty on the part of Washington lawmakers.
While Oregon has indicated that it won't consider the project without light rail, Washington must at least put forth such an option and generate discussion. Leaving the future of the project entirely in Oregon's hands? You might as well stick a pencil in your eye.