$6 Billion Columbia Crossing Bridge Project Will Require Tolling

Original Article

An editorial yesterday by Vancouver, Washington’s daily newspaper, The Columbian, celebrates support voiced during a Portland-region visit last week by U.S. Rep. James Oberstar, U.S. House Transportation Committee Chairman, for the I-5 Columbia Crossing bridge improvement project. It’s a major regional priority due to congestion and safety problems on the current I-5 Interstate Bridge connecting Clark County, Washington and Portland, Oregon. Columbia Crossing and other projects bundled into a three-state proposal from California, Oregon and Washington last week won a $15 million federal “Corridors Of The Future” grant, the bulk of which is essentially planning money for innovative approaches to financing the up-to-$6 billion cost of Columbia Crossing. Project options include replacing the current six-lane bridge with a wider one; adding a second bridge; and building in light rail or bus lanes under either scenario. One way or another, the thinking goes, this cross-border interstate chokepoint – and the tricky, tight interchanges and lane shifts north and south of the bridge that raise the corridor’s accident rate – needs fixing.

The Columbian editorial suggests it would be nice if Oberstar had a $6 billion sack of cash to meet the project’s estimated cost, but that for now it’s good news he realizes its importance. There is no mention of supplemental funding sources. A Columbian article Friday said local members of Congress are hoping the feds can provide half to two-thirds of the up-to-$6 billion cost. That’s probably wishful thinking, but even so, could leave a gap of $2 billion or more.

Enter tolling, or more specifically, congestion pricing, which helps pay for projects and regulate time-of-day use. It’s something Washington and Oregon say they’re interested in applying to Columbia Crossing. As Oregonian reporter Dylan Rivera last week noted in a blog post on Oberstar’s visit, federal officials consider that important, and specifically say that’s a key reason they awarded the “Corridors Of The Future” grant to the project. Rivera’s Oregonian blog post notes:

Ian Grossman, a spokesman for the Federal Highway Administration, said the potential use of tolls, and the possibility of variable charges, helped make the Columbia River Crossing (grant application) stand out. Federal officials were especially interested that Oregon and Washington are willing to consider congestion pricing — the practice of tolling a roadway and imposing higher tolls during peak traffic hours, the higher prices intended to dissuade use at certain times of day. “It’s the innovative financing that we believe will have a real impact on relieving congestion,” Grossman said.

A recent $138 million federal grant to Washington state for rebuilding the congested, earthquake- and storm-prone, State Route 520 Floating Bridge across Lake Washington is tied to state imposition of tolls on the bridge.

During his Oregon visit, Chairman Oberstar told public radio he’s against congestion pricing. But congestion pricing, keyed to time of day and sometimes also to road traffic loads, is the fairest, most logical type of tolling. And in the end, some form of tolling will almost certainly prove necessary to fully fund the Columbia Crossing bridge replacement on I-5.