Oregon, Washington Consider I-5 Bridge Toll

Dec 13, 2012

One of the biggest traffic choke-points in the Northwest is the Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River between Portland and Vancouver. Replacing it will be one of the region’s most expensive construction projects in a generation. Lawmakers in Salem and Olympia are considering funding packages to replace the bridge. A key question is whether enough drivers will pay the tolls planners say are needed to finance the project. Correspondent Chris Lehman reports.

Interstate 5 spans the Columbia River between Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, Washington.
Credit Photo by Chris Lehman / Northwest News Network

Traffic on the Interstate 5 bridge between Portland and Vancouver can be pretty slow on a good day. At rush hour, it's molasses. Oregon and Washington are considering a toll to pay a portion of the $3.5 billion cost of replacing it. Still to be determined? How much drivers would pay. At a legislative hearing in Salem, Republican Senator Chuck Thomsen used a stage whisper to ask Oregon Transportation Commission Chair Pat Egan the question on every driver's mind.

Thomsen: "Off the record, how much is the toll going to be?"

The tactic didn't work. The rates are a long way from being set. But Egan says one thing's for sure: How much you'd pay would depend on what time of day you crossed.

Egan: "It ranges from the lowest, which is the middle of the night, to the highest which would the peak period in the morning and the afternoon."

That's called variable tolling, and it's an increasingly popular way of managing congestion in other big cities. But what's unknown is how many people would be so dedicated to avoiding that toll they’d drive out of their way. After all, Interstate 205 crosses the Columbia just a few miles upriver, and that bridge is likely to continue to be free. Pat Egan says yeah, some people would use the alternate crossing…for awhile.

Egan: "What you would anticipate is that traffic flows would get back to and exceed over a period of time what they are now, well in excess. But initially when the tolls are first being put into place, you anticipate there will be a bit of a drop-off."

Two-thirds of the people who responded to a recent poll by a Washington state insurance company said they'd go out of their way to avoid a toll on the I-5 bridge. But the recent addition of tolls on a Seattle area bridge gave transportation officials there the chance to see how many drivers would really do that.

Rubstello: "We were pretty curious about that ourselves."

Patty Rubstello is director of the Washington Department of Transportation's toll division. She says in the year since tolls were put on the SR 520 bridge between Seattle and Bellevue, traffic volume has dropped by about 30 percent. And that was pretty much what Rubstello expected.

Rubstello: "Our projections were pretty close. We were actually very surprised and quite happy with how that's all turned out. It's been extremely close."

Transportation planners say it's okay that some drivers avoid the tolls, since that helps smooth out traffic volumes. The real question is whether enough drivers will continue to use the I-5 bridge to successfully pay off the cost of building it. Drivers probably won't have to wait until the new bridge is built to decide. Oregon and Washington say it's likely a toll will be placed on the old bridge long before the new one is completed.

Copyright 2012 Northwest Public Radio