Washington initiative could be hurdle for Columbia River Crossing tolling
A proposed ballot initiative in Washington could become a major hurdle for the proposed Columbia River Crossing project, if Evergreen State voters sign off on the plan.
Initiative 1125 would rewrite Washington law so that variable tolling would be banned in the state. Only the Washington legislature would have the authority to set toll prices, and restrictions would be placed on what toll collections could be spent on.
Such restrictions could prove to be a road block for the bridge project, said Metro policy analyst Andy Cotugno.
"Variable pricing is an essential part of the project," Cotugno said. "At minimum, it would require the approving bodies to go back and consider whether they want to approve a project without peak period pricing."
Tolling is expected to pay for as much as $1.4 billion of the $3.6 billion project.
There are a lot of variables still in play in the Columbia River Crossing, a controversial highway and transit project that would replace the century-old Interstate Bridge and its approaches with a wider, two-deck bridge, new interchanges on Interstate 5, light rail to Vancouver and cross-river access for active transportation. But through the process, Washington has been envisioned as handling the project's toll collections, in part because the state already has tolls implemented on several freeways.
The initiative is being proposed by Tim Eyman, a perennial, and somewhat successful, Washington initiative writer. About half of Eyman's initiatives have been passed by Washington voters.
Eyman didn't respond to several phone messages and an email on Wednesday. But it's believed that highway projects on Lake Washington have drawn his ire.
Variable tolling, which raises the price of the toll during rush hours, has been proposed to help pay for the $4.7 billion replacement of the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge in Seattle. Politicians there are debating whether to toll the Interstate 90 floating bridge, four miles south, to head off the potential of drivers going out of their way to avoid paying the toll.
Similarly, some Oregon leaders had pushed for tolling the Glenn Jackson Bridge on Interstate 205 to avoid diversions from I-5, although that notion has been looking less and less likely as a component of the Columbia River Crossing project.
Eyman's initiative would also ban putting tolls on projects unless they're used to fund that specific project, making it unlikely a toll on I-205 could be implemented without some major project on or around I-205.
In an e-mail to media on Sunday, Eyman questioned whether only the wealthy should have access to new bridges. Tolls have not been established for the Columbia River Crossing; tolls on the Evergreen Point bridge range to $5 depending on the time of day and method of payment.
"Should citizens, regardless of income, have access to the bridges and highways our taxes have paid for, or should only rich people be able to use them?" Eyman wrote.
Metro Councilor Rex Burkholder questioned Eyman's motives for pushing the proposal.
"It's a pretty obvious ploy to put something on the ballot, just like (Bill) Sizemore did for years," he said.
Burkholder, who has been Metro's chief liaison on the Columbia River Crossing, said sidestepping Eyman's initiative wouldn't be as simple as having Oregon, which has no ban on variable tolling, putting the toll system's license plate readers on the south side of the river.
The north Portland councilor pointed to a ban in the Oregon Constitution on using gas tax money – and possibly toll money as well – on transit projects. (Incidentally, Eyman's proposal would ban using tolls for non-transportation purposes, but allow their use for non-highway purposes within the realm of transportation.)
"We could run into a problem paying for some parts of this project that weren't directly motor vehicle related," Burkholder said. The lower deck of the new Columbia River bridge is envisioned as a crossing for light rail trains, pedestrian and bicycles.
"It's such an obvious scam and so insulting to motorists paying tolls that it invites a response," Charles said. "If you're not willing to do tolling for the purpose to which it's always been intended, people are logically going to oppose it by whatever means necessary. There's been no willingness to give up on this idiotic light rail spur to Vancouver that almost nobody wants."
Back on the highway, Eyman's initiative would require that tolls would have to expire once a project is completed. Cotugno said the tolls for the Columbia River Crossing are forecasted to be permanent, with their rates adjusting once the bridge's construction debt is paid off. Then, the tolls would only be used for maintenance.
"You'd lose the ability to have the bridge pay for its own maintenance," Cotugno said. "It shifts the maintenance obligation from the user of the bridge to the rest of the state."
Eyman and his supporters must collect more than 241,000 valid signatures by July 8 to qualify the initiative for the November ballot.