For Whom The Tolls Bell

Three Metro councilors ring exactly the wrong note about the future of the Columbia River Crossing

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Oregon is gearing up to build the biggest public works project in its history. Maybe.

The state will make up its mind soon. Promise.

For at least a dozen years, it’s been clear to everyone with a car and an appointment worth keeping that gridlock threatens to overwhelm the Interstate Bridge.

The solution seems obvious: a new bridge.

One bigger than the one before.

But in the brave new world of multimodal, environmentally sensitive transportation planning — where carbon credits have almost as much value as concrete — the obvious solution isn’t always the smart one.

In city after city, from Bend to Bangkok, experience suggests it is all but impossible to build one’s way out of congestion. Add fresh lanes to a freeway and what do drivers do? They fill ’em. Fast.

Highway engineers have a polite term for this phenomenon. They call it “induced demand.”

What this means is that the more lanes you add to a freeway, the more — not less — crowded that freeway becomes.

(Memo to doubting Thomases: Just because something’s counterintuitive doesn’t mean it’s not true.)

Right here in our own backyard, what this means is that as transportation authorities on both sides of the Columbia River wrestle with potential solutions to the gridlock problem, all sorts of silly ideas are surfacing. The silliest — so far — came this week from three Metro councilors.

Instead of articulating a series of archly crafted questions — an approach we would have welcomed — Carlotta Collette, Carl Hosticka and Robert Liberty reached deep into their grab-bag of stalling tactics. Their suggestion: Toll the old Interstate Bridge now, then muse for a few more years about doing something else later.

We can hardly imagine a more politically tone-deaf proposal.

The Oregon Constitution prohibits using toll revenues for mass transit. Yet everyone agrees that trains or buses must be part of any long-term effort to efficiently get Clark County commuters to and from Oregon. So the only way this tolling proposal could work would be for Metro to order Washingtonians to start levying them tomorrow with a promise that the regional government would get back to them later with the vegetable part of the carrot-and-stick equation.

This is more than an insult to your potential partner. It’s bringing your divorce lawyer to the wedding.

Oregonians have a long and distinguished history of distrusting tolls. That doesn’t mean we fail to recognize that we will one day need to embrace them. It means we think we’ll embrace them when they see immediate, and tangible, benefits.

Three of the Metro councilors had an opportunity this week to be part of the solution. Instead, they jumped at the chance to stay part of the problem.