The 'toll' truth about CRC hotly debated

The 'toll' truth about CRC hotly debated

PORTLAND, Ore. – If a new $3.4 billion Interstate 5 bridge project over the Columbia River between Portland and Vancouver is approved, tolling will be an integral part of paying for it, but critics of the project charge that tolling will have a negative impact on the region's economy.

Critics say that tolling will diminish the purchasing power of the consumer, thereby putting a drag on an already struggling economy.

Washington state Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, argued Sunday during KATU's "Your Voice, Your Vote" that tolling will take about $2,000 out of the pockets of consumers a year. He based his number, he said, on projections that the toll will be $8.

"This is a federal highway, this is a federal arterial and it should be paid for, mostly, by the federal government if we're going to go forward," he said. "It shouldn't be on the backs of commuters in Washington who already pay over $150 million a year in taxes to the state of Oregon for the privilege of working there."

Bridge supporter state Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, and also a guest on the show, fired back and called an $8 toll a "myth."

"It's a huge myth that it's going to be an $8 toll, and quite honestly, that's a range that they had to come up with. It's between $2 and $8 ...," he said, adding that "those who use the bridge, help pay for the bridge. It can't be any simpler than that."

Newest Tolling Projections

In late February project planners of the Columbia River Crossing released updated tolling and revenue projections under different population and traffic scenarios through the year 2060. On the low end of the projection, the toll would be $1.87 one way and on the high end of the projection it would be $4.34 one way.

The projections list different toll rates at different times of the day over an approximately 45-year period. But project spokeswoman Mandy Putney stressed during an interview that a tolling timeframe hasn't yet been established, and when it is, it will likely be for 30 to 35 years for the repayment of project bonds. Additionally, toll rates have not yet been established, either. That job will fall to a bi-state tolling commission if the project is approved.

The idea is to have higher toll rates during peak bridge-use times so that traffic over the bridge can be better managed.

"So that some people who are able to shift their time of travel might choose to do so, so they're able to take advantage of the lower toll," Putney said. 

In addition to help pay for the bridge, the tolls will also be used to pay the operation and maintenance costs of the tolling system.

Bridge critic and economist, Joe Cortright, president of Impresa, said during an interview that about $100 million will be drained from consumers per year over the decades of planned tolling.

He said there would be a "short-term benefit" from construction jobs but emphasized that tolling for decades "subtracts money from households and hurts the regional economy."

Project supporters, however, say the project will create and sustain about 1,900 jobs per year during construction. After the project is complete, there will be about 4,200 jobs created and $231 million in additional wages in 2030, they say. Overall, project supporters say the project will generate economic benefits between $5 billion and $8 billion.

Proponents don't dispute driving patterns will be affected with the addition of tolls; however, critics contend that tolls will lead to a sharp decrease in the use of the bridge and create congestion elsewhere.

How much traffic crosses the bridge is important because it will determine how much revenue is collected from tolls.

The plan is to only toll the Interstate 5 bridge. There are no plans to toll the bridge over Interstate 205 a few miles upriver. In 2012, the state of Washington passed legislation that declared the I-205 bridge off limits to tolling and federal regulations prohibit it if no improvements are planned for that bridge span.

"So with another bridge (I-205) four miles away, I would fathom that we're going to have a diversion rate of about 40 percent that stays consistent at 40 percent," said Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, who was also a guest on Sunday's "Your Voice, Your Vote."

He based his percentage on what he said happened on I-520 in Seattle when it was tolled.

"They're hoping by 2030 that we have 185,000 cars (on the I-5 bridge). But you need to take about 40 percent of that off," he said. "So if you take 40 percent off, that's fewer cars than we have traveling across the bridge today."

Moeller, however, insisted the math was going to add up.

"The bond rating has come back to indicate that there is even more capacity there for tolled bonds than before," he said. "And quite honestly, there is no other fair way to get to the local share. ... In fact, there were tolls that started that bridge to start with. ... It was just a part of doing business."

Warning: Math Ahead

Cortright used the CRC's own numbers and numbers from the Oregon Department of Transportation to conclude that tolling the bridge would cut traffic by about half of what it is now.

ODOT reported that in 2011, almost 124,000 vehicles cross the bridge a day. According to Cortright, the CRC report says (after the CRC's annual traffic projection numbers are divided by the number of days in a year) that between about 45,000 and 72,000 cars will stop using the bridge after tolling begins in 2016. Averaged together, that's about half the number of cars that cross the bridge today.

"In the end, we'll end up building a structure that is much larger than we need, especially if we toll it, and that's what their toll numbers show," Cortright said during an interview. "Their toll numbers show that if you toll this bridge, fewer people will use it in 2030 than are using it today, which means they're building a much bigger capacity (bridge) than we actually need."

The CRC projections, however, show that traffic will grow on the bridge over the years and level out at about 2045. Using how Cortright calculated the 2016 numbers, the traffic number won't reach the range of where it is today until about 2036. During that year, the low projection is that about 107,730 cars will use the bridge daily (or 16,270 will stop using it), and on the high projection, about 141,400 cars will use the bridge daily (or 17,400 more cars than today).

Putney, the CRC spokeswoman, acknowledges it will take time for traffic patterns to "settle out." 

"I think we've seen that up north on the 520 where there was some initial diversion, but the numbers that they're seeing now are higher than they would have projected if people are coming back to their preferred route," she said.

She cited a tolling study and a report from the years 2009 and 2010 that she said indicated that unless the toll was very high, most people would still use I-5. She said those studies indicated that only a small percentage of drivers would divert to I-205.

Before the new toll projections, the toll revenue funding capacity range was between $900 million to $1.3 billion and now it is between $1.07 billion to $1.75 billion. CRC proponents argue that's an increase in toll revenue funding capacity.

It is important to note that these projections are only preliminary, and the work to get the final numbers to be used in the official investment-grade analysis won't be completed until several months before bonds are issued for the project. Under Oregon's newly passed House Bill 2800, the state's treasurer will have to sign off on that investment-grade analysis before the state is authorized to issue bonds for the project. 

From Tolls to Polls

The public in Southwest Washington is not keen on the idea of tolling the bridge, according to a KATU News/SurveyUSA poll conducted last week.   
About 60 percent of the 500 adults surveyed said they would oppose tolling the bridge. There did not appear to be a party split because a solid majority of Republicans, Democrats and independents were opposed to tolling.

SurveyUSA also found that 47 percent support a new bridge with light rail, which is a controversial part of the current design, while 46 percent oppose it. About 7 percent weren't sure. In this case, however, there were indications that the issue is divided along party lines. About 71 percent of Republicans oppose putting light rail on the bridge while 71 percent of Democrats support it.

When light rail was taken off as a bridge option, about 60 percent then supported a new bridge as many Republicans moved into the support column.

The poll's margin of error ranged from +/- 4.1 percent to +/- 4.5 percent, depending on the question.

The project's cost will be shared among the states of Washington and Oregon and also with the federal government. Oregon has signed off on the project as well as its $450 million share. The focus has shifted to the state of Washington as it debates whether it will contribute its own money for the project.
Bridge proponents stress that it is time to replace the aging bridge, because it is unsafe, is a chokepoint for traffic and will likely not survive a major earthquake.

The math:

  • See page 21 of the PDF of the new tolling projections report.
  • See page 35 of the PDF of the ODOT report. Interstate Bridge Automatic Traffic Recorder...
  • Convert the annual traffic numbers into per day. Example for 2016, scenario 1: 19,093,000/365 = about 52,300.
  • 124,000 - 52,300 = about 72,700. (Slightly different than above because the above numbers are rounded to the nearest 1,000).