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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

In Our View: Tolling on new I-5 Bridge sensible, equitable

The Columbian
Published: April 2, 2023, 6:03am

Tolling on a new Interstate 5 Bridge would be fiscally responsible, sensible and equitable. Tolls would place more of the burden for a new bridge upon those who use it most — a user fee that meshes with conservative ideology.

Such is the only reasonable conclusion following news that the Legislature is discussing bills that would allow tolling on a new bridge. Final plans for a bridge remain far from reality — as do plans for tolling and other methods to pay for construction. But we are at a point in the process where sober consideration of the details is warranted.

As state Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, told The Columbian: “You put your shoulder to the wheel and you push and push in hopes that one day that will start to gain momentum and that it will actually turn on its own. I feel as if we’re at that critical point where that wheel is starting to gain momentum.”

As we have learned in the past, the idea of tolls can create a significant roadblock to such momentum. Public opposition to tolls is firm and boisterous; indeed, nobody likes to pay for crossing a major economic and social conduit in our community, but including tolls in the funding package is practical and fair.

“Fair,” of course, can be a nebulous term when speaking of fiscal matters. But look at it this way: Should somebody who lives in Vancouver and works in Portland pay more for a new bridge than somebody who lives in, say, Amboy and never crosses the Interstate 5 Bridge? Fairness dictates that they should.

Yes, a new bridge will benefit all of us and, therefore, require some sacrifice from each resident. But some will reap the benefits more frequently than others and should pay for those benefits.

Discussions about how much those people should pay are warranted. The Columbian reports that tolling is expected to raise $1.1 billion to $1.6 billion for a project estimated to cost between $5 billion and $7.5 billion. Preliminary estimates are that a toll ranging from $1.50 to $3.55 would be charged, with rates being higher at rush hour.

For somebody traveling to and from work in Portland, $7 a day can be a significant burden, amounting to more than $1,700 a year. It is reasonable to question the fairness of that price, but objecting to all tolls demonstrates a desire to shift that burden to people who never use the bridge.

And yet the arguments persist. Critics say that tolls require drivers to pay for use of a bridge after they already have paid for it and can claim ownership. This is grossly inaccurate; tolls will be required precisely because the bridge has not been paid for.

Detractors also suggest that the federal government should pay for more than 90 percent of the bridge, as it did for the Interstate 205 Bridge in the 1970s and 1980s. But the new federalism that was championed by Ronald Reagan helped bring an end to such federal largesse. Now, even the most mammoth of projects are seen as the purview of individual states and their citizens.

Spreading that burden among the citizens of Washington and Oregon will be the task of lawmakers and bridge planners. Elected lawmakers will determine their states’ contributions, and members of the Washington State Transportation Commission and Oregon State Transportation Commission will jointly determine the user fees.

Just as those who purchase gas pay more for road maintenance through gas taxes, residents who use the bridge should pay a little more for its construction.

In that regard, tolls are a reasonable solution.