VANCOUVER MAYOR Royce Pollard once smashed a souvenir Portland coffee mug to dramatically demonstrate his city's independence from its big sister across the river. But as Pollard's reelection campaign heats up, the most prominent issue has turned out to be a project with major significance to Portland: tolls on the I-5 Columbia River Crossing (CRC) bridge.

When Pollard and his challenger, Tim Leavitt, took to the stage of a small gazebo in Vancouver's downtown park on Thursday, September 10, for their first debate, it was clear that not much separated the two politicians. Both are white, male, long-time Vancouverites with mainstream politics and pro-business attitudes whose campaign materials feature their smiling hetero-normative families.

Both are strident boosters of the city, with Pollard promoting the tagline "America's Vancouver" and Leavitt proudly declaring Vancouver the "second largest city in the Portland metropolitan area" during the debate.

But Leavitt has picked up a campaign line that divides the two on an issue near and dear to many Vancouverites' hearts. "I have no intention of seeing tolling on the backs of our commuters," proclaimed Leavitt, to a round of applause.

Pollard and the other politicians and planners involved in the CRC project argue that it is financially impossible and environmentally unsound to build the $4.2 billion bridge without tolls ranging from $1.50 to $8.

But Leavitt's campaign platform seems to be working. Much to the incumbent mayor's embarrassment, Leavitt came in first during this summer's mayoral primary, albeit by just 43 votes: Leavitt got 8,689 votes, compared to Pollard's 8,646. Vancouver's population is 163,000, according to 2008 census figures.

Leavitt has succeeded in making tolling the CRC the central struggle of the election campaign despite the fact that the Vancouver mayor is not responsible for the final decision on tolling the planned CRC—that's up to the Washington and Oregon transportation commissions. Still, regardless of who is elected, Leavitt has managed to poison Vancouver's political water against tolls.

An estimated 60,000 Vancouver residents commute daily over the current I-5 bridge to jobs in Portland, and Leavitt argued during last week's debate that making commuters pay any toll to cross the proposed 12-lane bridge would be unfair.

"Why should the residents of Clark County be burdened by the costs of basically an international project?" asked Leavitt, pointing out that freight traffic uses the bridge to cross state lines.

Instead of a toll, Leavitt proposes cutting down the size of the bridge until it is "affordable" without tolls. When asked by the Mercury how a toll-less bridge would meet the environmental goal behind tolling—promoting carpooling and public transit—Leavitt replied, "If we pare down the scale of the project, it's going to be a de facto [traffic] bottleneck still. The point of tolls for many is to incentivize public transit, so if you reduce the scale of the bridge, the need for tolls for both environmental and financial purposes diminishes."

While the anti-toll mantra may be politically savvy in a city of cross-river commuters, those involved with the bridge project agree it does not make financial or environmental sense. Both Metro Council President David Bragdon and Mayor Sam Adams think the idea of taking tolling off the table, assuming the bridge ever gets built, is out of the question.

"Reducing the cost of the overall project could reduce the amount of the tolls," says Bragdon. "[But] there's going to be some form of local participation and that participation is likely going to be tolls."

"No tolls, no bridge," sums up Adams' transportation policy director, Catherine Ciarlo.

The CRC staff had no information this week on whether Leavitt's idea to reduce the size of the bridge project and cut all tolls is even possible. "It's been a longstanding assumption that tolls would be a necessary part of this project," says CRC Outreach Planner Carley Francis.

After the 90-minute long debate last week, several voters milling around in the shade of Vancouver's Esther Short Park identified tolls as the primary issue of the campaign, but expressed skepticism that Leavitt's no-toll idea actually holds any water.

"Nobody's a big fan of tolls, but I'm a big fan of the bridge," said still undecided Vancouverite Linda Reid. "I'm really torn on that one," agreed a 21-year resident of the city who identified herself as only Darlene. "I don't really see how they can do the bridge without a toll."