Plans to replace the Interstate 5 bridge have long called for tolls. And, for just as long, some politicians and drivers have scoffed at paying to cross between Washington and Oregon.
Little stands in the way now.
On Tuesday, Washington lawmakers agreed to allow I-5 bridge tolls. They sent a bill on a glide path to Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk. The bill OKs tolls — with strings — and planners say drivers could start paying them by 2026.
Some lawmakers from Southwest Washington attempted in vain to tweak the bill. One proposal tried to exempt people who commute for work into Oregon. Greg Cheney, R-Battle Ground, argued those people face “double taxation” from tolls and Oregon’s income tax.
Another proposal, from Republican Rep. Paul Harris of Vancouver, argued tolls shouldn’t start until the new bridge is in place. Planners estimate that won’t fully happen before 2031. Harris worried the toll and ongoing construction will wreak havoc on commuters.
“We don’t want to have them pay tolls plus be bottlenecked,” he said. “Please be considerate of them, they’re paying taxes into that beautiful state.”
While tolls are expected to be an important way to pay for a new bridge, the exact mechanisms have yet to be determined. The bill allows tolling so long as the project has “sufficient” federal dollars and that Oregon and Washington are able to strike an agreement on when to start them and how much drivers will pay.
Planners have said they aim to offer reduced tolls for some drivers, such as people who are low-income.
In total, tolls are expected to pay for between $1.1 and $1.6 billion of the bridge, which itself has a price tag between $5 billion and $7.5 billion.
Apart from driver tolls, the states of Oregon and Washington are to each add $1 billion to the pot. Washington state lawmakers passed their payment in 2022. Oregon lawmakers are currently devising their funding plan.
After that, planners hope to net billions more in federal dollars. Supporters of the replacement project have argued that tolling power and local funding in place will help them make strong funding pitches to agencies like the Federal Transit Authority and the Federal Highway Administration.
One concern among the Washington lawmakers Tuesday revolved around how long tolls would last. In decades past, tolls on the I-5 bridge have expired after meeting their target funds.
Skamania County Republican Kevin Waters argued that once this project is paid for, tolls should only pay for ongoing maintenance. However, that amendment joined a handful of others scuttled by the House.
In all, the House adopted just two amendments out of seven. Both came from Clark County Republican Stephanie McClintock: one to ensure Washington keeps its portion of toll dollars and another that puts guardrails on the cost of the tolls.
Procedurally, Washington state senators have to give final approval to the bill. But that appears bound to happen after the House made few changes to the bill the Senate passed April 5.
Inslee, whose signature is the bill’s final stop, has supported tolls.
“We don’t normally speculate on bill action until it has reached our office for final review,” said Inslee spokesperson Mike Faulk. “That said, the governor recognizes tolling is a part of the financial plan for the bridge and would be a needed funding source.”