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Sunday, December 10, 2023
Dec. 10, 2023

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Jayne: Raising fear of tolls is effective

By , Columbian Opinion Page Editor

As a political strategy, it’s often effective. As a political reality, it’s akin to advocating for a unicorn in every backyard.

And while demanding that a billion-dollar interstate bridge be paid for without the implementation of tolls is intriguing, as a political philosophy it is a head-scratcher.

You see, we are talking in these parts about replacing the Interstate 5 Bridge; you might have heard something about it. And part of that discussion is the issue of tolls for crossing a shiny new bridge.

Raising the fear of tolls can be effective. It helped generate public opposition to the Columbia River Crossing proposal more than a decade ago, and it helped Tim Leavitt get elected mayor of Vancouver in 2009. When you talk about reaching into voters’ pocketbook, they start paying attention.

So it wasn’t surprising to see a slew of roadside signs supporting Earl Bowerman as a no-tolls candidate for the recent mayoral election in Vancouver. In this case, it wasn’t enough for Bowerman to defeat incumbent Anne McEnerny-Ogle, but it probably didn’t hurt his chances.

While Bowerman’s supporters were picking at the low-hanging fruit of fear-mongering, they were hoping that voters would ignore the realities of the situation. The odds are that tolls will be part of paying for a new bridge, and the facts are that the mayor of Vancouver will have no influence over that decision. Even Leavitt, shortly after being elected, changed his position on tolls and said, “We’ve got to work within the parameters we have.”

As a slogan, “no tolls” is as foolish and counterproductive as “defund the police.” We can hope that tolls aren’t the $30 required to use an interstate express lane in the Denver area, but it takes more than fairy dust to pay for a new bridge.

Mind you, this is different from proposed tolls along Interstate 5 and Interstate 205 through the Portland area. That plan is an egregious money grab from the state of Oregon to get Washington residents to pay for some projects that will not benefit them. But charging a user fee for crossing a bridge that connects to Washington makes perfect sense.

Which brings us to the head-scratching portion of our program.

Because Bowerman is a staunch conservative. And the conservative faction of the Clark County Council recently supported a resolution insisting on a bridge without tolls. And the region’s no-tolls movement of a decade ago was led by conservatives, including David Madore on his way to a short-lived stint as a county councilor.

But the idea of tolls is a perfect fit with conservative ideology. User fees are an important method for limiting the scope and influence of government, making those who use a service or product pay for a larger share of it. As the libertarian Reason Foundation explains: “User fees, also known as ‘impact fees,’ differ from general taxes in that they are incurred only by those who benefit from the service provided, while taxes are collected on the entire population.”

Indeed, we all will receive some benefits from a new bridge. Everybody in the United States will reap some benefits from the economic boost provided by a bridge. We all should pay for part of it, including the federal government. But it is reasonable for those who benefit most to pay a little more.

By pretending that a bridge can be constructed without tolls, local conservatives are saying that people who never use the bridge should pay more than they would otherwise. It doesn’t change the cost of a bridge; it just transfers some of that cost. If you never use the bridge, you will be paying just as much as somebody who crosses twice a day. Perhaps the Clark County councilors should ask constituents in, say, Amboy or Woodland what they think about that.

Of course, there is more to the argument. Opposing tolls is an attempt to create a no-frills bridge that doesn’t include an extension of Portland’s light-rail system.

That issue is worthy of a separate discussion. But for now, the anti-conservative caterwauling from conservatives in Clark County has us scratching our heads.

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