Now that we're rolling ahead with the $4.2 billion Columbia River Crossing bridge, here comes the hard part: actually finding $4.2 billion in the middle of the Great Recession.
Back in April, the governor strong-armed Oregon legislators into keeping $30 million for the CRC in the state budget, but two funding sources for the bridge are two words everyone hates to hear: taxes and tolls.
This week the CRC project sponsors council convened two public listening sessions on tolling the bridge, one in Vancouver and one at the Jantzen Beach. I don't think it was intended this way, but what a hilarious practical joke to stage a meeting about traffic congestion and smart transit planning at the Jantzen Beach mall at 6PM on a workday. According to a quick show of hands, only eight Oregonians showed up to the far-flung meeting and I personally had plenty of time to contemplate the benefits of light rail while stuck in hot traffic for 40 minutes. Outside the meeting room, an obese woman in blue Crocs kept pumping quarters into one of the mall's massage chairs.
But anyway, here's the deal on tolling - the bridge needs to be tolled to help cover its insane construction costs as well as to control traffic and incentivize taking transit. The lowest possible scenario the CRC bigwigs are thinking about (the one studied in the draft Environmental Impact Statement on the bridge) would vary from $1 during the slowest times to $2 during peak hours. But the plan that would make the most money ($6.1 billion) and reduce traffic the most, projections show, is way higher — $3 tolls in the middle of the night and $6 during peak hours. At the listening session, which was dominated by anti-toll, anti-light rail types, several people said tolls were an infringement on personal liberty. “Tolling the 1-5 bridge would effectively crush the liberty of highway users,” said one person to loud applause.
And on top of the tolling hurdle, get this: while the federal government is covering the cost of constructing Vancouver's section of light rail, Vancouver will need to pay for operations and repair of the light rail with an increased sales tax. That Vancouver voters will need to approve next year. They might as well call it the "snowball in hell" vote.
The tax increase would only be a one-tenth or two-tenths of one percent sales tax increase and Vancouver Mayor Royce Pollard is more optimistic than I am about his constituents' willingness to pony up a few cents in the name of progress. "Obviously, it will be a very close vote. It's not the best of times to be talking about even a two-tenths or one-tenth increase," says Pollard. "But we are essentially getting this light rail system for pennies." As for tolls, Pollard notes that "people are not going to be happy" when the scenarios go above $1.50. He suggests Oregon and Washington's legislature give commuters tax write-offs for part of their toll payments.
If you want more info, check out the CRC's new tolling info website - which is also where you can comment on tolls if you couldn't make it out to the two absurdly inconvenient meetings.