Wednesday, January 20, 2021
Jan. 20, 2021

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In Our View: Tolls inevitable, appropriate for new I-5 Bridge

The Columbian

Plans for a replacement Interstate 5 Bridge are in their infancy, but tolls seem inevitable and appropriate.

Decisions regarding a bridge are far in the future. Designs, funding and questions about whether to include light rail have yet to be broached by officials considering the future of the region.

But as preliminary discussions progress, it is time for local residents to ponder what they desire from a bridge and the best way to pay for it — separating fanciful wishes from reality. One of the realities is that tolls will be required to help pay for a bridge.

This, for some reason, is a controversial position. Opposition to proposed tolls helped scuttle the Columbia River Crossing proposal in 2013, and the issue reflected the community’s divide over details surrounding the bridge.

Now, a preliminary report from the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program office has provided some perspective. A conceptual cost analysis says a bridge could cost as much as $4.81 billion, which would be split in some configuration between Washington, Oregon and the federal government. Actual costs for Clark County residents are impossible to predict until a funding commitment is secured from the feds.

When the Interstate 205 Bridge was constructed beginning 1977, the federal government paid 92 percent of the final $168.6 million cost. But political philosophies have transformed over the years, and Washington, D.C., is unlikely to pay as much as Washington state toward a new bridge.

Which brings up the question of how to pay for it. The CRC proposal called for tolling to finance $1.3 billion of the expected cost of $2.8 billion, with another $450 million coming from Washington taxpayers. Southwest Washington lawmakers led an effort that killed the plan in the Legislature, and seven years later we still are in desperate need of a new bridge.

As that need intensifies, debate over tolls could again be a roadblock. But what critics often ignore is the fact that tolls align with conservative principles. Rather than a tax upon the general public, they are a user fee that charges those who benefit the most from a new structure.

As Robert Poole wrote last year for libertarian-leaning Reason magazine: “Highways enable travel and trade, which helps a free-market economy work productively. Highways are very similar to utilities such as electricity, natural gas, water supply, and telecommunications. … Toll roads operate in this way, also — as businesses providing customers with vital highway services, paid for directly by those customers.”

An effectively designed bridge would benefit all area residents by enhancing commerce and reducing driving times. Even those who do not frequently use the bridge would enjoy the economic advantages and should bear some of the costs through taxes. But it is perfectly reasonable for those who drive across the bridge to cover a little more of the cost in exchange for their added benefits.

This is different from proposed tolls on the Oregon side of Interstate 5 and Interstate 205, which are designed to reduce congestion by causing people to drive less. Those tolls would inordinately be paid by drivers from Clark County, and unless the funds are used to provide demonstrable benefits to those drivers, they are inherently unfair. The roads involved are paid for; tolls are unnecessary.

But tolls to help pay for a new Interstate 5 Bridge, which might not exist without those user fees, would be part of a funding package that benefits the entire region. And they are among the many questions that local residents should start considering.