Debate over tolls, design heats up as Oregon moves closer to pledging $1 billion to I-5 bridge
Oregonians got their first chance to weigh in on the project at a legislative hearing this week
Aerial view of the Interstate 5 bridge connecting Portland and Vancouver. (Oregon Department of Transportation/Flickr)
There’s widespread agreement that the Interstate 5 bridge connecting Oregon and Washington needs to be replaced. It’s old, it’s crowded, it’s a critical freight line, and, most importantly, it’s not built to survive an earthquake.
But that’s where the agreement ends. As Oregon lawmakers move closer to contributing $1 billion to the bridge replacement project, rhetoric is heating up.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers on Wednesday introduced legislation to block the Oregon Department of Transportation from enacting tolls on state highways until 2026. On Thursday evening, the first opportunity for Oregonians to weigh in on the bridge plan before a legislative committee, dozens of people spent nearly two and a half hours talking about the cost, transit access and tolls. Another public hearing is scheduled for May 4.
In an interview with the Capital Chronicle earlier this month, Joint Transportation Committee co-chair Susan McLain, D-Hillsboro, said she was sure that the Oregon Legislature will commit $1 billion toward the bridge replacement, matching a contribution from Washington, before ending the legislative session in June.
“What I am convinced of is that we are committed to coming up with our part of the dollars and that we are committed to matching Washington state,” McLain said. “And we are committed and making sure that we do this this session so that we can do our second product, which is to make our grant applications the best possible for additional funding from the federal package. That’s what I’m convinced of.”
The form that $1 billion will take is still up for debate. McLain and other members of the committee want to use state-issued general obligation bonds, repaid from the General Fund over the next eight years. Gov. Tina Kotek, who’s seeking $1 billion in bonds for affordable housing, isn’t sold on the funding plan, though she has reiterated support for the bridge itself.
Others oppose the current plan for the replacement bridge, which is estimated to cost up to $7.5 billion and would include rebuilding 11 miles of highway along with the twin northbound and southbound bridges.. Much of the opposition at Thursday’s hearing came from environmental and transit advocates who see it as a freeway expansion.
The design would keep the same three through travel lanes in either direction that the bridge and surrounding highways have now, while adding one or two auxiliary lanes that run from on-ramps to exits. It would also add a bus lane, space to run the MAX light rail and a path for people walking or using bikes to safely cross the river.
Zachary Lauritzen, executive director of the pedestrian safety group Oregon Walks, said the current plan shows that the state prioritizes highways over walkers. He was at the Capitol earlier in the week advocating for spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to improve safe walking routes to schools, he said, and it was jarring to hear conversations about spending billions of dollars on Interstate 5.
“It would be adding freeway lanes that move vehicles further and faster,” he said. “We need to replace the bridge. We understand that. But what we build, and the money we spend, is a reflection of our priorities and our values.”
Local elected officials in Portland and Vancouver, who approved of the plans, have urged the Legislature to move quickly to take advantage of federal funding from the 2021 Infrastructure and Jobs Act.
“After years of dialogue, our region has finally reached a shared understanding of what we need out of our next bridge,” said Portland Commissioner Mingus Mapps, who oversees the city’s transportation bureau.
Resistance to tolls
A group of lawmakers and local leaders from Clackamas County are pushing to block the Department of Transportation from imposing tolls on Interstate 5 or the auxiliary Interstate 205 for at least two years. No Oregon highways have tolls now, though tolls apply on some bridges, including the Bridge of the Gods from Cascade Locks to Washington.
State transportation officials planned to collect up to $1.6 billion for the bridge replacement project from tolls and are considering charging between $1.50 and $3.55 per trip, with higher rates at rush hour.
During a speech on the House floor earlier this week, Rep. Annessa Hartman, D-Gladstone, said the department hasn’t shown how it would avoid overburdening Oregonians who can’t afford to pay tolls.
“I know what it feels like not to be able to afford an extra $12 to $25 a day, and I can imagine how this tolling plan might burden a single, working mother who may drive all day doing a variety of service-industry jobs just to get ahead,” she said.
Washington has a few toll roads and tunnels, but otherwise it only charges tolls for express lanes in crowded areas around Seattle and Tacoma. People can still drive on those highways free of charge, but they may choose to pay a toll to get to their destination faster.
McLain, the transportation committee chair, said state transportation officials will look at different ways of charging tolls, including potentially capping the amount charged in a day or week for local trips. But express lanes aren’t an option.
“You couldn’t actually do that without building more lanes, which you’ve got a contingency of this state that doesn’t want to do,” McLain said.
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