Herrera Beutler bill aimed at stopping I-5 Bridge tolls

Amendment would halt Oregon’s plans for transportation funds

By Jake Thomas, Columbian staff writer

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Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, has successfully sponsored an amendment to a federal spending bill that’s intended to stymie Oregon’s plans to pursue tolls on routes that many Clark County commuters rely on to get to work.

The amendment was approved Wednesday evening by a voice vote and is attached to a House bill that funds multiple federal agencies and departments, including the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The text of Herrera Beutler’s amendment states, “None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to enter into an agreement for the establishment or collection of tolls on Interstate Route 5 or Interstate Route 205 in the State of Oregon or Washington.”

Earlier this year, the Oregon Legislature passed a $5.3 billion transportation bill that was signed by Gov. Kate Brown. The bill directs the state’s transportation commission to ask the Federal Highway Administration by Dec. 31, 2018, for approval to put tolls on I-205 and I-5 beginning at the state line and ending where the two connect near Tualatin, Ore.

The move by Oregon sparked concern among Clark County residents that they would be unfairly tolled to pay for infrastructure in Oregon.

“Residents of Southwest Washington have been voicing their strong concern to me that Oregon will be forcing them to pay tolls for infrastructure they don’t use and that there’s nothing they can do about it,” said Herrera Beutler in a prepared statement. “They’re concerned that Oregon will make them an unwilling piggy bank.”

In the statement, Herrera Beutler explained that she’s not against user fees. But she stated that these fees should be used to construct or repair infrastructure that benefit those who pay them.

The bill is now before the Senate and Herrera Beutler has called on both Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, Washington’s Democratic senators to follow suit.

“Our office is reviewing the details and monitoring the provision as it comes over to the Senate,” wrote Cantwell spokesman Bryan Watt. Murray was also non-committal.

“Right now my focus is on hearing from stakeholders and getting input from the community,” Murray said in a statement. “It’s critical that if and when decisions are made, they are done in a way that is productive and fair for everyone involved.”

Brown’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment. However, Travis Brouwer, Oregon Department of Transportation assistant director, said, “It’s a little early to say we are going to slap tolls on I-5 or I-205 at the state line.”

He explained that Oregon’s transportation funding bill also creates an advisory committee that will start meeting this fall and will seek input from the public and stakeholders on both sides of the Columbia River.

“Stakeholders from Southwest Washington will have a say at the table,” he said.

He said that the committee will look closely at the options for using tolling or value pricing on I-5 and I-205 for nine months to a year before going to the Federal Highway Administration with a proposal for approval. Brouwer said the process will show how, if done correctly, tolls or value pricing could reduce congestion and provide more predictable travel times.

He pointed to express lane tolling in the Puget Sound area as an example of how paying a little more can lead to a shorter travel time. However, he noted that the conditions on the Washington-Oregon border are different.

“This is going to be complicated,” he said. “We are going to take this in a very deliberative manner and make sure we are doing this right.”