Illustration by Zack Soto

NOW THAT THE POWERS that be have decided to roll ahead with the biggest I-5 replacement bridge possible—the 12-lane Columbia River Crossing (CRC)—they face a challenge of equal size: digging up the bridge's $4.2 billion budget in the middle of the recession. Public comment on proposed bridge tolls opened last week, unleashing fervent testimony on fees that could range from $2 to $8 at peak hours.

"Tolling is another tax and we're sick of it!" piped up a Powellhurst-Gilbert resident to a round of applause at a tolling hearing last Wednesday, July 1, at the Jantzen Beach Supercenter. Three dozen anti-toll and anti-light rail voices dominated the meeting. Some commuters also raised concerns about the financial burden of steep tolls on working families. The bridge needs tolls to cover its high construction costs, but they are also essential for reducing traffic congestion and encouraging commuters to buy a ticket on public transit instead of driving.

All the tolls will vary during peak hours, but under the lowest toll scenario studied, drivers will pay $2 to cross the bridge during peak commuting hours (6 am-10 am and 3 pm-7 pm) and $1 to cross in the middle of the night. The scenario predicted to bring in the most money—a total of $6.6 billion over the course of an estimated 30 years—would have southbound commuters paying $8 during peak hours. Northbound commuters would not pay any tolls under that scenario.

An $8 toll might sound outrageous to Vancouverites, but the CRC is looking for money wherever it can. Its current budget relies heavily on funding from strapped state coffers, and Oregon legislators gave CRC backers like Governor Ted Kulongoski a scare when they initially nixed the bridge from the state budget this year ["Driving Miss Lazy," News, May 14]. Tolls, while controversial, are a reliable funding source.

Metro Council President David Bragdon puts more stock in the tolling web survey the CRC will unveil in August than the overwhelmingly anti-toll sentiment revealed at last week's public meeting.

"The sample on this is going to be skewed no matter what," Bragdon told the Mercury, lamenting that a handful of the same vociferous citizens show up at every meeting. The CRC will collect public comment on tolls through the summer and fall.

"I hate tolls, but without tolls, we will not get this project done," says Vancouver Mayor Royce Pollard, who admits that any toll above $1.50 will upset voters.

The big bridge faces another big funding challenge. Federal funds are paying for the construction of long-awaited light rail to Vancouver, but in 2010 Vancouver voters will have to approve a 0.1 percent sales tax increase to fund the light rail's operations.

"Obviously it's going to be a very close vote," says Pollard. "But we are essentially getting this light rail for pennies."

If notoriously anti-tax Vancouver voters kill the sales tax increase, it could stall or derail the whole light rail project.