Jayne: Oregon’s hare-brained to want to toll Washington drivers

By Greg Jayne, Columbian Opinion Editor

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Greg Jayne, Opinion page editor

For some reason, it calls to mind Wile E. Coyote.

When you can’t catch Road Runner, you drop an anvil on him from atop a cliff. Or strap yourself to a rocket. Or purchase some jet-propelled roller skates from Acme Corporation. When you are this clever, after all, what could possibly go wrong?

So it is that the Oregon Legislature has embraced a hare-brained scheme to capture some money for road repairs. Lawmakers there recently passed a $5.3 billion transportation bill that includes seeking federal permission to place tolls along Interstate 5 and Interstate 205, beginning at the Washington state line.

It doesn’t take the wit of Bugs Bunny to figure out that this cockamamie plan inordinately targets Washington residents. An estimated 65,000 people traverse the state line twice every weekday while commuting between their homes in Washington and their jobs in Oregon. Judging from the direction of rush hour vehicles across the two bridges, it is clear that a big chunk of the traffic is Clark County drivers leaving home in the morning and returning there in the evening.

Oregon officials want to establish tolls along the two main freeways in the metro area and employ “value pricing” that would increase at times of high demand — again targeting drivers from Washington. Those drivers, by the way, already pay income tax to Oregon if they work on that side of the river, despite having no representation and receiving only some of the benefits from such tyranny.

All of this has drawn the attention of Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, who wrote a letter to Oregon officials saying, “Oregon has no right to make Southwest Washington an unwilling piggy bank for Oregon’s infrastructure projects.” Herrera Beutler wrote that she supports user fees (tolls), but this plan “would be unfair in the extreme.” That might be bluster, but it could be important — considering that Oregon’s tolling plan requires federal approval because the freeways are federally owned.

The bill calls for creation of an Oregon transportation commission to seek that approval by the end of 2018. That gives us up to 17 months for what could turn into a brouhaha between the states. It gives us nearly a year and a half to ponder what in the world Oregon officials were thinking. The guess is that Clark County residents are going to make plenty of noise about this, enough to draw the attention of the governor and lawmakers in Olympia. And considering that Washington has 75 percent more population and a Gross Domestic Product more than twice as large as Oregon, officials here have plenty of weight to throw around.

A politician’s dream

Because of that, Oregon is likely to hit a wall as if running into a tunnel painted on the side of a mountain. The population of Clark County represents about 20 percent of the Portland Metropolitan Area, and singling out that population for tolls — if approved — is the kind of thing that can lead to a long and messy court battle.

After all, why weren’t tolls proposed for Highway 217 and Highway 26 through the suburbs west of Portland? Those are state highways and would not require federal approval.

Instead, Oregon is either consciously or subconsciously extracting some revenge for the manner in which Washington lawmakers scuttled the Columbia River Crossing proposal in 2013. That might result in some benefits of this unnecessary salvo from our unneighborly neighbors. If it triggers discussion about replacing the Interstate 5 Bridge and eventually building additional bridges across the Columbia, it will have been worth it.

But in the meantime, lawmakers to the south have latched onto a dream scenario for politicians — raise a lot of money from people who cannot vote you out of office. It’s difficult to blame them, but it’s also difficult to think there won’t be unintended consequences. You know, the kind that leave them hanging in the air and pulling out a sign that says, “Yikes!”