<img height="1" width="1" style="display:none" src="https://www.facebook.com/tr?id=192888919167017&amp;ev=PageView&amp;noscript=1">
Saturday,  June 22 , 2024

Linkedin Pinterest
News / Opinion / Editorials
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: No tolls before date to begin bridge construction

The Columbian
Published: May 18, 2024, 6:03am

It is, in a sense, a $1.2 billion layaway plan — the start of a down payment on what we hope will be a seismically sound Interstate 5 Bridge that reduces congestion throughout the region.

Current proposals suggest that tolls on the bridge will pay approximately $1.2 billion toward the cost of a new span, which is expected to range between $5 billion and $7.5 billion. And the question this week is when those tolls should begin; there are plans for fees on the current bridge before the start of new construction.

“A lot of people are upset now,” state Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, told news outlet Washington State Standard. “They are not used to tolling. It’s going to be a new experience. Imagine what they will feel like if they are paying tolls a lot longer without getting anything for them.”

It is a reasonable concern. As detailed in a recent meeting of the legislative Joint Transportation Committee, the current plan calls for tolls to begin on the I-5 Bridge in early 2026; tolling would continue on a new bridge once it is complete. The pre-construction tolls would be set aside and used to help pay off the new bridge.

Therein lies the problem. There is no telling when construction on a new crossing might begin; there are, in fact, no certainties about whether it will ever begin. Many hurdles remain to be cleared, and years of litigation could pop up between now and the opening of a new span — a fact that calls for a pause on the start of tolling.

Amid debates over the height of a bridge and the inclusion of light rail, tolls remain one of the most contentious issues surrounding a new crossing. As The Columbian has asserted editorially, a user fee that helps pay for construction is reasonable and equitable; those who benefit the most from a new span should pay a little more than those who rarely use it.

Toll rates will be set jointly by members of the Washington and Oregon transportation commissions, and several rate scenarios are under review — ranging from $1.50 to $3.55 with higher prices during peak travel times. That can be difficult for users, particularly the approximately 70,000 Clark County residents who are employed in Oregon and frequently traverse the bridge.

Ideally, the federal government could come up with an extra billion dollars, spreading the cost of a new bridge among all American taxpayers and rendering tolls unnecessary. But local planners and residents should acknowledge the reality that tolls are likely to be part of the funding package.

Which brings us back to the question about when those tolls should be implemented. Common sense suggests that collection should not begin until plans are finalized and a firm date is set for the start of construction.

It is sensible for tolling to begin while the current Interstate 5 Bridge remains in use; spreading out collections will help keep rates low and help reduce financing charges. But it is not sensible to begin tolling when the start of construction might remain months or years or a decade away.

It is one thing to pay a toll on the current I-5 Bridge when you can see a new span going up; it is quite another to pay during an extended period when no progress is visible. We don’t start making layaway payments on a product that exists only in our imaginations.

Orcutt has asked whether tolls on the current bridge will be delayed if construction on a new bridge is delayed; he was told that the answer will be available later in the process.

That seems backward. A firm date for the start of construction should be in place before we start talking about pre-construction tolling.