In Our View: Good First Step on Tolls

Oregon panel’s invitation for Vancouver to join process will open needed dialogue

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It is a step in the right direction.

Vancouver has been invited to have a representative on an Oregon committee considering tolls along Interstate 5 and Interstate 205. And while there is cause for some cynicism and caution, it is a step in the right direction. Discussion between the states is essential as they seek progress toward solving the region’s transportation needs.

This year, the Oregon Legislature approved a $5.3 billion transportation package that includes plans to pursue tolling on interstate freeways through Portland. The problem for Clark County residents is that the plan calls for tolling to begin at the state line — the south ends of the I-5 and I-205 bridges.

These tolls would disproportionately affect Washington residents who work in Oregon or make frequent trips there. An estimated 65,000 Clark County residents work on the south side of the Columbia River, and commuting requires two daily passes over one of the interstate bridges.

If revenue was designated for improvements to those bridges, we would be more supportive of such user fees; those who use the bridges would benefit from the tolls. But most of the money will go to projects that will provide little benefit to Washington residents. Aside from a large I-5 project near the Moda Center, the funds are earmarked for areas infrequently traveled by drivers from Washington. As U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, wrote to Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, “Oregon has no right to make Southwest Washington an unwilling piggy bank for Oregon’s infrastructure projects.”

The plan has a long way to go; because I-5 and I-205 are federally owned, Oregon officials must seek approval before implementing tolls. But it has grabbed the attention of both federal and state lawmakers from Washington. U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., contacted the Oregon Department of Transportation calling for our state to be involved in the discussion.

Now, Oregon officials have invited Vancouver to provide a representative for the policy advisory committee that will formulate the proposal. The Washington State Department of Transportation already has a member on the committee, a position that will be upgraded to full voting status.

This could be dismissed as a token gesture designed to alleviate criticism from the Washington side of the river, and a spokeswoman for Herrera Beutler said, “Putting a few Washingtonians on a committee where they can be easily steamrolled by an 80 percent Oregon majority does nothing to relieve Jaime’s concerns.” But, overall, the move is worthy of polite applause if not roaring approval.

For four years, ever since the Washington Senate scuttled the Columbia River Crossing proposal, the states have been unable to engage in meaningful conversation regarding a replacement for the Interstate 5 Bridge or a third bridge across the Columbia or anything else that will alleviate gridlock. The issue is too important to be met with silence, as congestion continues to diminish the region’s economy and quality of life.

Washington recently appointed four legislators to a task force seeking interstate transportation solutions and has extended an invitation to Oregon representatives. We again encourage Oregon to join the discussion. And now, Oregon has offered local representatives a seat at the table to discuss tolling plans.

That might or might not be an empty gesture, but any discussion between the states is a step in the right direction.