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Aug. 1, 2021

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In Our View: Oregon Toll Plan Bad Idea

Clark County residents would unfairly bear brunt of tolls on Interstate 5, Interstate 205 bridges

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They must have misunderstood.

While we long have encouraged officials in Washington and Oregon to approach bistate transportation issues with hands extended in friendship, our neighbors to the south have misconstrued that dictum. Instead, they are considering reaching out and digging through the pockets of Clark County residents, an action that is most unneighborly.

A transportation bill in the Oregon Legislature (House Bill 2017) includes a provision seeking federal permission for tolls on the Interstate 5 and Interstate 205 bridges across the Columbia River. Specifically, Section 120 of the proposed legislation states: “At a minimum, the commission shall implement value pricing in the following locations: (A) On Interstate 205, beginning at the Washington state line … (B) On Interstate 5, beginning at the Washington state line …”

That is part of a comprehensive package for funding infrastructure in Oregon, and there are some caveats. For one, the state would require federal approval to place a toll on an interstate freeway. For another, the bill is not expected to pass. But strange things can happen in a legislature, and that calls for pointing out the drawbacks of the proposed tolls.

Fees for crossing the I-5 and I-205 bridges would primarily target Clark County residents. About 65,000 people traverse the state line each day to work in the Portland area, meaning they would pay tolls while coming and going. These are people, mind you, who already pay state income tax to Oregon despite not living there. In addition, numerous Washington residents visit Oregon for shopping or recreational opportunities.

Digging into the pockets of Washingtonians would be somewhat justifiable if those citizens gleaned extensive benefits from the action — such as a new I-5 Bridge or improvements to the freeway through the heart of Portland. But House Bill 2017 designates the money mostly for improvements at the south end of Interstate 205, near where the highway reconnects with Interstate 5. While a majority of those who cross the interstate bridges are Washington residents, relatively few of us frequently venture south of Portland.

The grasping for transportation money is understandable. As Washington leaders have demonstrated in recent years, finding funding for much-needed infrastructure is a complex and difficult task. In 2016, the Washington Legislature ended several years of wrangling by passing a gas-tax increase designed to raise $16 billion over a 16-year span. The Oregon Legislature has experienced similar difficulty finding the sweet spot in which a comprehensive transportation bill can draw adequate support.

But the idea of Washington residents paying for an inequitable portion of that bill — without having representation in the Legislature — should quickly be rejected. Not only would it harm the Portland economy by targeting what amounts to about one-fifth of the metropolitan area’s population, it would engender hard feelings on this side of the river.

Then again, that might be the point. Many Oregon lawmakers have expressed lingering frustration with the manner in which the Washington Legislature scuttled the proposed Columbia River Crossing in 2013. Turnabout, it could be said, is fair play, but that does not make it reasonable or wise.

Before advancing their plan for tolls, Oregon lawmakers should consider the big picture and the ultimate goal of replacing the I-5 Bridge. Instead of increasing enmity between the states, they should extend a hand in a quest to solve the problem.

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