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In Our View: I-5 Bridge tolls must be kept low as possible

The Columbian
Published: February 28, 2024, 6:03am

As much as anything surrounding a proposed Interstate 5 replacement bridge, discussions about tolls drive home the reality of the project.

Although it is not finalized, a new bridge is coming. And last week, a bi-state tolling subcommittee held its first meeting, initiating the process for determining how much motorists will be charged to cross the bridge.

That process is certain to draw public attention, with tolls being a controversial aspect not only of the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program but of the Columbia River Crossing proposal more than a decade ago.

There are clear differences between those efforts to construct a new bridge. In 2013, opposition to tolling helped scuttle the CRC project. It also helped decide an election for mayor of Vancouver and generated contentious political debates throughout Clark County.

This time around, both the Washington and Oregon legislatures have authorized tolling on a new bridge, and preliminary estimates suggest that tolls will pay for approximately one-quarter of a project that currently is tabbed at $6 billion.

Neither the authorization nor the revenue projection should be viewed as a green light to gouge motorists. The concerns of residents must be heeded as officials seek a delicate balance in establishing tolls.

At the risk of being overly provincial, the concerns of people from this side of the Columbia River should be given particular weight. More Clark County residents work in Oregon than vice versa, leaving them with a larger share of the tolling burden. In addition, Clark County residents are more likely to cross the river for shopping and entertainment.

Many of those residents choose the Interstate 205 Bridge for their crossings, and that bridge is expected to remain free of tolls. But the fact that we are more likely to traverse the I-5 Bridge demands that our voices be heard.

Those voices are likely to increase in volume with news about tolls in other parts of the region and the nation. On March 1, for example, some tolls on Highway 167 and Interstate 405 in the Seattle area will increase to $15. It is important to understand that the new rate will apply to solo drivers opting to use the high-occupancy lane on those routes – not to all drivers. But the move generates the kind of headlines that can have local motorists gritting their teeth.

Meanwhile, Oregon officials have complicated the process in recent years with a proposal for tolls along I-5 and I-205 through the Portland area.

That plan has been placed on hold for at least two years through an executive order from Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek; it should be permanently abandoned.

Adding to the issue is a plan to begin tolling on the current bridge while a new bridge is under construction.

A preliminary traffic and revenue study placed potential tolls during 2026 between $2.15 and $3.55, or possibly from $1.50 to $3.15.

Critics have argued that tolling should not begin until a new bridge is in place, but we would argue that spreading out the funding mechanism will help keep fees as low as possible and will be most beneficial for motorists.

Of course, there are no simple answers and no path to making everybody happy. But the need for some level of tolls is clear; charging a user fee for those who cross the bridge is reasonable and equitable. The key is to find a level that does not overburden a particular segment of the community and does not undermine the regional economy.