Things get so crazy at the action-packed end of the legislative session that some big policy decisions slip through the cracks. Like this one: On June 24th, the Governor vetoed a little two-paragraph bill that would have directed the Oregon Department of Transportation to develop a framework and rate structure to begin tolling the existing 1-5 and 1-205 bridges to Vancouver by the first day of 2011.

If ODOT made tolls a reality by 2011, they could help raise some of the $4.2 billion needed to build the new 12-lane megabridge without having to dip too heavily into the state's General Fund. As I reported on this week, tolling is one of the touchiest subjects for the Columbia River Crossing (CRC) project, since commuters aren't happy about the idea of ponying up between two and eight dollars to drive across the river.

The governor explained in his veto statement (pdf) why he vetoed the bill, SB 580 (pdf):

I am pleased by our progress on the Columbia River Crossing, working in partnership with the State of Washington on this bi-state project. SB 580 imposes an artificial deadline that is not helpful and ultimately could be detrimental to the progress we've made. ... In fact, I don't believe that the project can happen without some tolling. However, mandating the date that toll rates must be set usurps the work of the PSC [Project Sponsors Council].

The bill was controversial in the legislature, where 22 House Reps voted against it—some who don't support the 12-lane CRC and some who do but think the idea of the legislature directing ODOT's tolling structure is out of line.

"Whether you’re for the bridge or against the bridge, tolling is going to be part of the funding solution for what to do with the bridge," says SE Portland Rep Jules Kopel Bailey. "It’s pretty surprising that the governor vetoed the bill because it’s a pretty simple bill that doesn’t put any handcuffs on. We could actually compel ODOT to come up with a tolling plan to reduce traffic on the current bridge. In the groundwork for doing that, they could develop the paper trail to show we don’t need to build such a gigantic bridge."


Fantastic money bridge! illo by Zack Soto.

Transportation Committee Chair Terry Beyer voted against the bill and was not surprised at the governor's veto. "I don’t think this bill moved us forward on the project and we didn’t need it. This would have put us a little out of sync with what Washington’s doing," Rep Beyer explains. "Washington isn’t quite as enthusiastic about tolling. The two states are co-operating on this project and the deadline piece might put a kink in our relationship."

Since the bill is now dead in the water, it will be up to the Oregon and Washington departments of transportation to hash out a tolling plan if they want to toll the bridge during or before the new CRC construction. Project sponsor's council member David Bragdon says that idea is still totally on the table. "All rational people know that tolling will have to be part of this project," he says.