If the Interstate 5 bridge is replaced by one that uses tolls, then it would be a bridge too far for Clark County officials.
On Wednesday, the Clark County Council threw its collective support behind replacing the 104-year-old span that connects Oregon and Washington. But that support came with conditions.
The biggest: that the bridge doesn’t cost drivers to cross. In a statement, the council said tolls “would have a negative impact on all Clark County residents, particularly those with low income.” Officials overseeing the multibillion-dollar endeavor said it would require some form of tolling, as well as funds from Oregon, Washington and the federal government.
The Clark County statement is largely symbolic. County leaders have little jurisdiction over the project, unlike the leaders of Portland and Vancouver, Oregon and Washington, the federal government and regional planning entities.
However, the declaration does signal some of the tension that could continue to play out before the project breaks ground. Councilor Julie Olson, who joined Temple Lentz in voting against the statement, said the tolling arguments have only begun.
“This conversation will just get louder as time goes on,” Olson said.
Councilors Gary Medvigy, Karen Bowerman and Eileen Quiring O’Brien, who voted in favor, did not respond to requests for comment.
U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, has criticized tolling in the past. She said Wednesday that the tolls will disproportionately impact her constituents and disproportionately benefit Oregon projects.
“Of course, there’s a backlash against tolling,” Herrera Beutler said in a statement. “Southwest Washington residents have good reason to be suspicious of this process.”
According to Greg Johnson, program administrator for the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program, a team jointly funded by Oregon’s and Washington’s departments of transportation, tolls are common on projects this size.
Johnson’s team will help with tolling, he said, but it is ultimately state legislatures and transportation committees who must finalize the details.
“As the details of how tolling could be implemented are explored, the IBR program is committed to developing an equitable tolling system informed by national best practices for tolling in urban areas,” he said.
Johnson also said he welcomed suggestions from Clark County councilors about where to find other funds.
Clark County does have a seat on an advisory board for the project. Lentz, who fills the seat, said she worried the county’s official statement will portray them as unwilling to compromise. Tolls may be inevitable, she said, but the county can still influence how they are used and possibly how they affect drivers from Southwest Washington.
“Instead of being able to productively impact the conversation and weigh-in on how to mitigate the impacts of tolling, the Clark County majority is drawing a line in the sand and refusing to admit the reality of this project,” Lentz said.
Besides tolling, Clark County leaders also stated they don’t want to give up any car lanes for mass transit where possible. They wrote county residents “prefer to cross Interstate 5 bridge in their cars, as opposed to public transit,” and argued for an adjustable bus lane.
Johnson said the federal government is requiring mass transit options for the bridge. Those options could include light rail or bus rapid transit.
Officials with C-Tran, Clark County’s transit agency, had little reaction to the county’s resolution shortly after its passage Wednesday. A spokesperson said the agency planned to “incorporate their feedback into future plans.”
Nick Christensen, a spokesperson for Metro Council, the regional government that oversees land use in Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties, pointed to the timber pilings in the mud on which the century-old bridge rests to illustrate that it needs to be replaced.
“(Metro Council President Lynn Peterson) is focused on finding a replacement for that bridge and she hopes other government partners maintain their focus on that as well,” Christensen said.
The bridge replacement is approaching an important mile marker soon.
In January, Johnson said, staff hope to have the first handful of design ideas. The designs will clarify the mass transit options, the number of lanes, and how the bridge may interact with Hayden Island and the smaller bridge just south of the island.