For the last year, there has been a public discussion in the Portland/Vancouver area about replacing the bridge on I-5 over the Columbia River at the state line.  The Columbia River Crossing website has up to date information on the various options for what the bridge will look like, it’s size, and how it will be paid for.

The replacement bridge itself is necessary since the traffic using the bridge is beyond the capacity of the bridge (and of the connecting highway, especially on the Oregon side) on most days.  Also, it would be nice to remove the necessity for a drawbridge on I-5.  A consensus was recently reached from among the local government representatives that are part of the group.   The new bridge would cost between $3.1 – $4.2 billion to build.  It would have three lanes for traffic in each direction, an additional three lanes in each direction for entrance and exit lanes, lanes for bicycles and pedestrians, and an accommodation for an extension of the Tri-Met Light-Rail System.

While I am in favor of doing everything possible to reduce automobile trips and increase the use of alternative modes of transportation, it is also necessary to maintain and to replace as necessary existing parts of our infrastructure.  To that end, I am in favor of the choice for replacing the bridge.  I understand that it will cost a lot of money, but it is necessary to maintain commerce and also ease of travel for the general public.

The current discussion of the group revolves around how to pay for the structure, as discussed in a recent article from the Oregonian.  Most officials on the Washington side of the river are opposed to tolls on the bridge.  Their arguments revolve around the needs of more commuters to travel from Vancouver into Oregon than the other way around, and a desire to fund the bridge through Federal and State highway funds first, with tolls being used as a last resort.  On the Oregon side, most officials seem to see the tolls not only as a way to pay for the bridge, but also as a permanent solution to raising funds for other highway maintenance projects later.  Some Washington officials would support a toll if necessary, but only to the extent of paying off the bonds to pay for bridge construction, not for any other purpose.

Further, the Oregon delegation would like to explore whether they can add a toll to the I-205 Bridge, the only other link for about 40 miles in either direction linking the two states.  They state this would be to keep the bridge from being overwhelmed by people going around the I-5 tolls.  They also note that this would be an additional source of revenue for other highway projects in the area.  Despite the fact that it would be a long uphill struggle to convince the Federal Governmebt to allow them to add a new toll to an existing Interstate highway, they still see te dollar signs in their eyes.

In fact, adding a toll to the I-5 route will cause some people to use I-205 as an alternative route.  Doing this may have undesirable effects for Oregonians, as this will tend to increase traffic on other routes into Portland, such as the I-84 corridor from the East Side. However, to look at a historical example, I don’t believe that there was a large-scale change in traffic patterns in Seattle when the tolls were removed from the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge in 1979. I have also heard no discussion so far that a toll would be needed on I-90 in Seattle if the SR-520 bridge were replaced and a toll were placed on that bridge.  I see no precedent for adding a toll to the existing bridge in similar situations anywhere.

I would oppose a toll for the new Columbia River Bridge in any case.  This link is a necessary part of transportation in the Portland area.  Further, I believe it is poor policy to charge the users of an individual piece of roadway for the cost of maintaining that roadway.  As road users, we all benefit from all road improvements, as our highway system works as a system to get all users where they need to go.  To that end, we already charge ourselves a “toll” to use all of our highways, in the form of a fuel tax we pay every time  we purchase fuel.  I benefit from a wide range of highways, whether I drive on them directly or not.  Even If I didn’t own a car, I benefit when a truck uses an efficient highway to get goods to my town.

In discussing this particular project, our government officials have expressed an urgent need to increase revenues to maintain our highways.  In lieu of adding a toll to our bridges, which in effect taxes only the users of a particular stretch of highway, I would propose considering an increase in our fuel taxes to reflect the costs of maintaining and improving the highway system that we all depend upon.  We currently pay about 42 cents per gallon in Oregon and 46 cents per gallon in Washington for gasoline.  This is similar to the rates we were paying when gas was $1.20 per gallon.  Certainly, if we were paying a third of the price of a gallon of gas in 2000 in taxes that would directly benefit us in better highways, it would not be unreasonable to allocate that same percentage of the price of a gallon of gas in 2008 for the same purpose.  As long as we are going to pay more for gas, it might as well cause some benefit to us in addition to the benefit oil companies get from the higher prices.

Sure, we don’t want to raise our gas taxes that much.  But it would not seem unreasonable at this point to double our gas tax to pay for the maintenance and improvements we need, rather than trying to get the same money piecemeal by adding tolls to various places in the system.  Sure, we don’t want to pay more taxes.  I don’t like paying more taxes.  But I am tired of watching our highway system get bogged down in traffic and necessary maintenance deferred until we are worried that our infrastructure will crumble.  Consider allowing government to do their job.  Consider an increase to our gas tax to maintain our infrastructure, rather than piecemeal taxation to certain users.  I would want to see some results for my money.  In the long run, though, it will be money well spent.