Washington lawmakers will discuss this week whether to toll the Interstate 5 bridge, a move that could happen within a few years.
A bill in the state’s Senate Transportation Committee would authorize the Washington Transportation Commission to establish tolls on the bridge to help pay for the multibillion-dollar project. But, according to the bill, that authority hinges on “sufficient” federal dollars and a tolling agreement with Oregon.
Either of those provisions could be months or years away, lawmakers said. But approving the authority does sweeten the application for federal grants as deadlines fast approach.
“Our ultimate goal is to do everything in our power to obtain the maximum number of federal dollars possible for the I-5 bridge replacement project,” said Washington Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver.
The bill wouldn’t authorize tolling on Interstate 205, a measure that has been considered in Oregon. It also wouldn’t set any rates that drivers would pay, nor does it specify a start date. State Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, introduced an identical bill in the Washington House.
Per the bill, both the Washington and Oregon transportation commissions would have to strike a deal for tolling to begin.
Tolls factor heavily into the massive plans to replace the aging span that connects Oregon with Washington over the Columbia River. Planners estimate tolls could pay between $1.1 billion and $1.6 billion of the project.
The latest estimates, proposed at a March 21 meeting, project drivers could pay between $1.50 and $3.55 to cross the bridge. That toll could start around the time the replacement project begins, which could take near a decade to complete.
Planners also intend to use “variable rate tolling,” where the price would rise and fall based on the amount of traffic. At least 130,000 vehicles cross the bridge daily during the work week, according to regional transportation agencies.
Cleveland said she expects there will be many discussions about the specifics of the tolling when details come into focus. Planners aim to offer reduced tolls for low-income drivers.
Oregon has already given its transportation commission the authority to toll, according to the Washington bill.
But officials from Portland, Vancouver and other public agencies in the region hope that federal dollars will pay a big share of the total cost. A swell of “once-in-a-lifetime” federal dollars, largely due to the Inflation Reduction Act, has made billions available.
“Go big. Do the big ask and get it done,” Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle told planners at a recent meeting.
Replacing the bridge — the first incarnation of which was built more than a century ago — is expected to cost between $5.5 billion and $7 billion, according to the latest estimates. Planners want to secure at least a billion from agencies like the Federal Highway Administration.
The planning staff, which is collectively known as the Interstate 5 Bridge Replacement Program and is jointly funded by the two states, said they will start applying for federal grants this summer.
Washington has already pledged $1 billion toward the project. Last week, Oregon lawmakers began circulating their own plan to kick in another $1 billion.
Tolls, meanwhile, have been a contentious topic. Southwest Washington politicians have fought them for years. But that tone may be shifting as officials like Cleveland and McEnerny-Ogle have come into office.
As recently as 2021, then-U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, a Republican, penned a harshly worded letter to the Oregon Department of Transportation saying bridge tolls “punish” her constituents, many of whom commute into Portland.
Herrera Beutler’s successor, Democratic Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, said in a statement that she is simply hopeful to see the replacement begin.
“The best bridge is one that gets built,” she said. “My role in Congress is securing the federal dollars needed to complete the project, and I hope that any plan at the state-level to fund the bridge replacement project keeps the impact on working people top of mind.”