Metro councilors should focus on improving the region's economy, transportation system, livability and environment when they take testimony and vote this afternoon (Feb. 5) on the size of a new bridge over the Columbia River.

In the nation's worst economic recession in more than three decades, Metro councilors should let prudent economics be their guide. Build only what you can pay for. But finally, Metro councilors should ensure that Oregon responsibly connects to the rest of the nation via an improved Interstate 5 link over the Columbia River.

What these regional leaders from three Oregon counties must not do is succumb to their passionate or intellectual desire to shape land-use outcomes in Clark County, Washington, by restricting the size or design of the bridge that links the two states.

How Clark County and its communities ultimately control growth and manage land-use policies should be decided only by Washingtonians - not by Metro councilors making transportation decisions.

Let facts guide the decision

We think the debate about whether the Columbia River Crossing bridge should be built with eight, 10 or 12 lanes should be settled by only the facts as best known today; by solid finances; and by a sense of trust that good transportation investments, including bringing light rail to Vancouver, will make a difference.

From what we have seen, the facts bear out that a bigger bridge, including tolls for all vehicles that cross it, does a better and more cost-effective job of achieving the outcomes the Portland area requires:

• Improved traffic safety in the I-5 corridor.

• Less congestion in the future.

• Improved commuter and freight traffic flow linking Portland and Vancouver.

• Reduced pollution.

• The best use of limited financial resources, including local, regional, state and federal contributions from taxpayers and transportation system users.

• Sustained economic vitality.

It is these outcomes that the region - including the cities of Portland and Vancouver and the states of Oregon and Washington - should emphasize. And those outcomes favor a bigger bridge with traffic tolls that will substantially pay the cost of the Columbia River crossing and better manage auto traffic.

Tolls are unavoidable

Frankly, smaller bridge designs with fewer lanes don't save much money, and would significantly more congestion and more traffic accidents. Not imposing tolls would be based on a foolish belief that the federal government will pay the extraordinary cost of this $4 billion project. Not supporting tolls and opposing light rail to Vancouver would ignore the reality that a new bridge must be accompanied by transportation systems that cause more people to drive less between Portland and Vancouver.

That's why we like the sound of an emerging proposal from Metro President David Bragdon that ties the eventual design and size of the bridge to an acceptance of tolling on the entire bridge. Bragdon's idea, we think, gives the bridge the greatest economic chance of being built and places tolling front and center. It also is a better means to limit growth in single-passenger vehicle traffic.

In this economy, with our nation, states and cities facing many compelling needs, tolls on traffic will help pay a major share of the crossing project that otherwise will be hard-pressed to find sufficient funding.

It is time for Metro councilors to lead the way among Portland and Clark County leaders and move forward on a Columbia River crossing design that helps this region achieve many diverse and important outcomes. Today's Metro Council vote provides that opportunity.

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