I-5 bridge tolling could last until the 2060s

July 26, 20230

Multiple tolling projects may begin at same time

Monday, July 24, 2023 — The Reflector
Rick Bannan / rick@thereflector.com

One of the largest sources of funding to replace the aging Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River will tax travelers a few bucks as they cross the water.

During its meeting July 18, the Washington Transportation Commission heard from officials involved with the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program (IBRP), a multi-billion-dollar project set to fix a major infrastructure issue at Clark County’s southern border.

The major development for the project was the Oregon state Legislature’s agreement to put $1 billion toward the estimated $6 billion project, matching Washington’s commitment a year earlier.

On the north side of the Columbia, lawmakers passed legislation to move forward on another funding source. On May 9, Gov. Jay Inslee signed Senate Bill 5765, which authorizes tolling along the bridge in order to fund the replacement project.

IBRP Assistant Administrator Frank Green noted the Washington Legislature had approved $1 billion for the bridge replacement last year. He mentioned Oregon’s approval still requires the governor’s signature, with Gov. Tina Kotek still having about a week to sign bills that have passed during this year’s session.

In other funding sources, Green said the IBRP submitted a letter to the Federal Transit Administration for entry into their capital investment process. That money is specifically for the transit portion of the program, as the agency’s name suggests, with program staff hoping to secure up to $1 billion through it.

He said the program has targeted other federal grants to the tune of $1.5 billion.

Currently, the project is undergoing a federally required environmental review. Through that process, a traffic study is taking place to determine what levels of tolling are required to make it work. The program plans on having a full report at that level in the start of 2024, according to Green’s presentation.

Having bi-state funding commitments has brought the current effort closer to fruition than the Columbia River Crossing, a failed attempt at bridge replacement a decade ago, ever was.

“We’re really at a point where previous planning efforts were never able to get to,” Green said.

“These … programs are moving together from a standpoint of the back office and the administrative needs that are necessary to advance these, but they definitely will have probably different policy-setting and rate-setting processes due to the fact the interstate bridge replacement program will need to be a bi-state policy and rate-setting process,” Green said.

Earliest tolling is expected to begin on the Oregon-side in early 2026, which is only slightly sooner than when the IBRP plans to begin its own tolling, according to Green’s information.

He noted Oregon was attempting to do its own toll operations along roadways on the interstates and near where the IBRP would be set up.

“There may be multiple tolling projects that are implementing at the same time,” Green said.

The current model has no tolls from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m., IBRP Financial Structures Lead Brent Baker said. He said it was in acknowledgement of potential road work lane closures.

The lowest toll rates would be paid for by those with an electronic-based tolling account, with others paying an additional charge to be mailed, he said. Rates would increase based on inflation per year, and medium and heavy trucks will be required to pay a multiple of the base rate, according to the presentation.

The base rate of tolling ranges from $2.15 to $3.55, according to Baker’s presentation. Currently the tolling has a “forecast horizon” of 2067, Baker said.

“I think the duration of the debt is something that will be determined at a later stage,” Baker said.

Even with the potential of low-income discounts, it didn’t affect the bottom line of toll revenues enough for much of a change, Baker said.

“They concluded that the effects on traffic are relatively minimal, a little bit of an uptick, but offering that discount doesn’t have a material impact on net toll revenues,” Baker said about the discounts.

Commissioner Roy Jennings, of Clark County, questioned how the tolling scheme was being devised.

“Washington has not officially met with Oregon on this stuff, and we’re being told this is the way it’s going to be,” Jennings said.

Green noted Jennings’ concerns, saying, because of the Oregon Department of Transportation’s proximity to the bridge replacement, it made sense for ODOT to take the lead.

“I’m not seeing as they’re dictating something to us,” Green said. “It’s just the technology and the region that will be used.”

Although the bridge tolling is separate from what Oregon has planned for the interstate in its own jurisdiction, Green said some level of consistency is part of the plan.

“I think consistency for the system, a traveler and user here, is going to be part of the discussion,” Green said.

He noted exactly “how” that synchronization would look will be a further decision by the two states’ transportation commissions.

John Ley

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