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We can work it out: I-5 bridge needs consensus

Our View • Modern tolling can make funding for Columbia crossing fair for all
by: William Thomas Cain, Toll booths won’t be a large part of the proposed Columbia River Crossing, because new electronic tolling can make the process easier and more affordable for daily commuters.

Sometime in 1917, the first toll was paid by the first person to cross the then-new bridge between Portland and Vancouver. Was that first vehicle a wagon pulled by two, four or perhaps even six horses; or did the 22.2-horsepower engine of the early Model Ts propel it along?

In any event, a toll was the price for progress, for a bridge instead of a ferry. As time passed, tolls paid for improvements to what became today's Interstate 5 bridge. Tolls were part of crossing the I-5 bridge until 1966, the same year The Beatles released the album 'Yesterday and Today.'

Like a lot of things, tolling is not what it used to be. The charm of digging in your pockets for change and slowing down to get in line for the tolling booth, if it ever was charming, is gone. As befits our age, electronic tolling is all the rage. The new I-5 crossing will not have multiple tollbooths: Instead, a small device in your car or truck - an 'in-vehicle transponder' - will electronically calculate the number of times you cross the bridge. You can either have a prepaid account or pay tolling fees at the end of the month.

There will be a booth, but only for the occasional cash or credit card customer. Who knows, perhaps in a few years (or months, at the rate things change now) a cell phone app will be all that's needed. Electronic tolling is a very convenient system - technology put to good use - and there's an example close to home. In 2007, the new Narrows Bridge between Tacoma and Kitsap Peninsula opened with the Good to Go! tolling system, and those commuters who chose the pre-pay option benefited with a discount or exemption from the full toll.

The Columbia River Crossing project has been vetted through an extensive public process. A task force that represented a wide variety of interested groups studied all of the possibilities for the project for three years. They came to consensus around the locally preferred alternative (LPA), which includes a replacement bridge, highway improvements, light rail, and bicycle lanes and pedestrian paths. Once they made their recommendation, the next phase was to focus on costs.

Project staff just released recommendations on how to make the project more affordable. They have reduced the original estimates by $650 million and are recommending 10 lanes instead of 12.

In 2010, the final Environment Impact Statement is due, which will solidify the final design of the project. The Tolling Study Committee has been researching tolling options and listening to public testimony, and will present its report in January. The report will undoubtedly lead to more discussion and debate before a decision is made by the Project Sponsors Council, made up of representatives from the entire region appointed by the governors of Oregon and Washington.

In his recent guest opinion 'Funding must be fair for new I-5 bridge' (Dec. 3), Vancouver Mayor-elect Tim Leavitt expressed strong support for the crossing, and called for toll exemptions for local commuters and businesses who must cross the bridge regularly. In its design to date, the project engineers have worked hard to incorporate the various and sometimes conflicting values held by different groups in the region in an effort - largely successful in our opinion - to strike the right balance for all of us.

As we move into a more detailed discussion of tolling, we should take the same approach. Mayor-elect Leavitt's concern for those who must use the bridge more than the rest of us is warranted. Surely, commuters and local businesses expect to pay their fair share, but an undue burden should not fall on them.

The debate about how to toll and how much to toll is productive and necessary. However, just as the first Columbia River bridge, built at the beginning of the last century, required tolls in order to be built, so will this century's new bridge require tolls.

The Columbia River Crossing is a critical piece of essential infrastructure for our region and the entire West Coast. It will require federal money - and local money. The people of Vancouver and Portland have come together in the past to support important transportation projects, and we believe they will come together again. As The Beatles wrote on 'Yesterday and Today,' 'We can work it out.'

Bill Fromhold and Brian Gard are executive directors of the Columbia River Crossing Coalition.