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Blog Metro Portland, The I-5 Bridge Tolls For Thee

Have you ever seen a whole lot more of the mighty Columbia River and Portland’s skyline than you really wanted to, because you were crawling on Interstate 5? C’mon, raise your hands. Well, good news. The government is here to help. And so are you and I. Probably. The Oregonian’s Dylan Rivera reports today that at a meeting yesterday of the 39-member Columbia River Crossing Task Force, tolls emerged as a likely ingredient in the recipe to fund a fix for the badly-congested Interstate Bridge corridor on I-5.
The early and perhaps rose-colored estimate is that tolls would range from $1.28 each way during off-peak hours to $2.56 at peak periods. They would be collected electronically, and provide an estimated one-third of the roughly $4.2 billion needed for a 12 lanes-with-transit bridge replacement, and related work to ease congestion at six I-5 interchanges.
The current six-lane span (actually two side-by-side bridges built in 1917 and 1958) connects Portland and fast-growing Clark County, Washington. As part of I-5, the choked corridor also carries giga-loads (I believe that’s the official term) of West Coast freight truck traffic. The slog on, and to and from the bridge within a five-mile radius, now lasts six hours a day, but planners say that would grow to 20 hours daily by 2030 if nothing is done, and as freight traffic doubles.
You think groceries are expensive now? Just wait ’till we do nothing.
As The Oregonian’s Rivera reported last October, the Task Force is scheduled to make a final choice on bridge replacement configuration in February, but the likely selection is a 12-laner with light rail, preliminarily estimated to cost about $4.2 billion, including the above-noted interchange work. But that figure – and needed tolling revenue – could easily grow, as design engineering work is completed. The feds might provide up to 80 percent of the funding, or less. The Task Force, a conglomeration of elected officials, transit agencies, neighborhood and other interest groups, is to finalize a finance plan for the selected alternative by August, in time for Congress to appropriate funds for the project in 2009. The bridge is deemed a critical national project by the U.S. Department Of Transportation.
Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski and Washngton Governor Chris Gregoire recently visited the bridge and Gregoire confronted the tolling beast head-on, telling The Columbian:

The interesting questions there are: Do we start tolling before we even begin construction on the bridge to make sure the tolls can be lower when it’s ultimately opened? Do we do variable tolling to reduce congestion and give more choices to consumers? Do we have to toll someplace else because we’re going to push traffic in a big way” to other bridges? In my mind, we are going to toll. How do we toll?

In a very similar vein, Gregoire also recently made headlines by calling for tolling on State Route 520, and perhaps also on I-90 to help replace the unsafe SR 520 bridge which connects growing and job-rich Eastside communities such as Redmond and Bellevue with Seattle, across Lake Washington.
The federal gas tax trust fund is likely headed for a deficit by 2009. In addition, Washington State’s gas tax revenues are starting to come in at a rate lower than forecast, due to volatile world oil markets, hgher prices and better mileage. Major regional transportation tax packages, whether they rely on a portion of regional sales taxes, add-ons to the motor vehicle excise tax, or other taxes, will continue to face very tough sledding politically, across the Puget Sound region, and in many other metro regions nationally.
Meanwhile, though we may have “already paid” for construction and even some expansion and upkeep of major highways and state routes with public monies, wear and tear take their toll (no pun intended), as do growth and congestion. Increasing transit market share is crucial, as are flex-fuel plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, ride-sharing and telework. After where, when, how and how much to toll, the next debate is whether tolling revenues can be used in part for transit. As noted in our Transportation Action Plan for Puget Sound issued after the defeat of Propopsition 1 last November, Cascadia Center supports regional High Occupancy And Toll (HOT) lanes on major interstate and state highways in central Puget Sound, with some share of the revenues dedicated to high-capacity transit such as express buses.
In any case, the very real constraints on funding sources of old, means that in contrast tolls – and especially variable-rate tolls pegged to real-time congestion – begin to make more and more sense.
How encouraging that the Cascadia region is starting to get that.
UPDATE, 1/28/08: In a Sunday Jan. 27 editorial, The Oregonian strongly endorses time-variable electronic tolling – and sooner rather than later – on the Interstate Bridge. That’s part of the above-referenced Columbia Crossing I-5 bi-state congestion relief project (which the paper’s editorial board terms The Emerald Gate). The Oregonian stresses tolls on the bridge on an ongoing basis, rather than just for a limited duration, in order to help fund not only its replacement and related corridor interchange work, but also ongoing maintenance, and capacity expansion. That last is something which could be accomplished by adding even more transit after opening.