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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: Oregon should rethink interstate toll proposal

The Columbian
Published: May 4, 2023, 6:03am

Tolling along public roadways can be an effective, necessary and equitable way to pay for road expansions and repairs. But, as we frequently have argued, those who pay the tolls must reap the benefits.

That is the difference between proposed tolls on the Interstate 5 Bridge and Oregon’s plan for tolls along I-5 and Interstate 205 through the Portland area. It also is why Oregon’s proposal has drawn so much ire from this side of the river.

Now, according to news reports, Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek is pausing plans for tolls toward the southern end of I-205. In the process, a move to impose tolls up to the Columbia River is expected to be placed on hold.

In truth, that proposal should be scrapped rather than paused. But the latest news does represent a move toward fairness that is beneficial for Clark County residents.

Some background: For several years, Oregon transportation officials have been planning to impose tolling along the interstates between the river and Wilsonville. The northern ends of I-5 and I-205 are heavily traveled by Washington motorists driving back and forth to Portland, including thousands who live here and work to the south.

The plan to get Washington residents to help pay for freeway improvements south of Portland is egregious. It amounts to taxation of drivers who have no political representation in Oregon; as American history tells us, that is tyranny.

The Oregon plan was scheduled to be phased in beginning in 2024, with tolls on I-205 bridges through the West Linn area to pay for improvements to those bridges. But following pushback from Oregon lawmakers, Kotek has paused that idea. That is expected to delay the proposal calling for tolls across a larger swath of the state’s major interstates.

All of this can be confusing, especially with simultaneous discussion of tolls across a proposed I-5 Bridge replacement. The Washington Legislature last month allowed bridge planners to consider tolls to help pay for a new bridge, and tolling could start long before constructions begins.

Some Southwest Washington lawmakers attempted to tweak that legislation. Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, argued that tolls should not be allowed until the construction commences. Part of the argument is that employees already pay Oregon state income tax. “We don’t want to have them pay tolls plus be bottlenecked,” Harris said. “Please be considerate of them; they’re paying taxes into that beautiful state.”

Although that argument has merit, it was rejected by lawmakers. And the larger picture dictates that tolls are a reasonable piece of funding for a new Interstate 5 Bridge.

As The Columbian has written editorially: “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.”

That represents the philosophical differences between bridge tolls and Oregon’s plan for “congestion pricing” just south of the interstate bridges. If user fees go toward projects that benefit those who are using the roadways, they are defensible; if they are destined for distant projects, they are inherently unfair.

If reason prevails, Oregon will indefinitely pause its tolling proposal until plans for a new I-5 Bridge are firmly in place. Tolls along the roadways will create a needless complication and unnecessary enmity between the states. Officials must remain focused on the most pressing need rather than being distracted by ancillary concerns.