Sunday, November 28, 2021
Nov. 28, 2021

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In Our View: Council takes fanciful view on I-5 Bridge tolls

The Columbian
Published:

Clark County government should have a role in discussions about replacing the Interstate 5 Bridge. But with a recent resolution regarding the bridge, the county council has positioned itself as an unserious player in efforts to move the project forward.

Council members last week passed a resolution expressing support for the bridge. But the 3-2 vote is built upon what likely is a fanciful desire — no tolls on a new bridge. Councilors Temple Lentz and Julie Olson maintained a grasp on reality in voting against the resolution.

“Saying we are against all tolls is … not engaging in a reality-based discussion,” Lentz said during a Wednesday council meeting. “It’s not that I love the idea of tolls — I don’t think anybody does — but I think simply saying ‘no’ removes our ability to productively participate in the conversation and work on mitigating impacts for our residents.”

Olson, The Columbian reported, thought it would be more appropriate to discuss the resolution at a regular council meeting. “I think this is an important statement that the council wants to make,” she said.

Indeed, nobody is in favor of paying a toll each time they cross the I-5 Bridge. But if we hope to agree on a replacement that improves traffic flow, is seismically sound and provides a boost to the region’s economy for decades to come, we must take a realistic approach. And the reality is that tolls likely will be needed to help fund a project costing several billion dollars.

This is different from tolls proposed by Oregon leaders along already existing highways in Portland. Tolls across the I-5 Bridge would provide clear benefits for the people who pay them; Oregon’s congestion-pricing proposal does not have the same clarity.

Clark County’s resolution includes several other caveats, calling for a bridge that reduces commute times and improves traffic safety. But the tolling issue is certain to receive the most public attention and be the most contentious. The question of tolls played a significant role in the scuttling of the Columbia River Crossing project in 2013.

Notably, conservative members of the Legislature were instrumental in halting that project. Now, the three most conservative members of the county council are the ones insisting on no tolls for an eventual replacement.

That violates conservative orthodoxy. Having those who benefit from a project pay for a larger share of the project — user fees — is a foundational aspect of conservative politics and plays into the goal of limiting government.

The bulk of the cost for a replacement bridge would be paid for by taxpayers through the federal and state governments, but those who actually use the bridge would pay a larger chunk with the addition of tolls. This is more sensible than having all Clark County residents pay the same amount, even if they never use the bridge.

Writing for libertarian magazine Reason.com in 2019, Robert Poole questioned conservative opposition to tolls: “These conservatives also reject direct, transparent pricing in favor of mostly hidden taxation. And they welcome the illusion that someone else (the federal government) is paying for a large share of the highways.”

Clark County’s government does not have an official seat at the table for talks about replacing the I-5 Bridge. But council members will, indeed, play a role in driving public opinion about any future proposal.

Council members should start by taking a realistic view of the project rather than clinging to unrealistic dogma.

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