Bridge toll could be on the rise

Transportation official says users should foot the bill for a new Columbia River bridge

The bi-state team studying options for a new crossing over the Columbia River is recommending a toll increase on the existing Hood River bridge to help fund that project.

However, the planning process itself could be mothballed by the Oregon State Department of Transportation and the Washington State Department of Transportation in early September due to lack of funding.

Dale Robins, project leader from the Southwest Regional Transportation Council, said a new bridge will be unlikely for at least 20 years if regional administrators from both agencies decide to pull the plug on the $1 million study. But he said local communities still need to plan ahead for replacement of the 81-year-old existing structure since they will be expected to foot a significant portion of the $110-140 million bill — a figure that excludes environmental mitigation costs and the purchase of right-of-ways.

“This comes down to a tough decision by the community; the only way to get this project prioritized is to pay for it,” said Robins.

He said the results of an opinion poll undertaken last year show that commuters and local residents favor user fees over other funding options such as a property tax.

These same individuals said they would be willing to pay between $1 and $1.50 per trip to use a new bridge, but most would even go as high as $2 with a 20-30 year payoff that would then allow free passage.

Robins said even a 25-cent toll increase placed into a special account would net residents just under $1 million annually toward a new bridge.

Although Robins presented that recommendation to the Hood River Port Commission on Aug. 6, officials decided to study the issue further before taking any action.

On Monday, Robins will update the Hood River County Commission about the uncertain status of the SR-35 Columbia River Crossing Project. He is asking officials from both states to share their concerns with ODOT and WSDOT prior to the Sept. 4 decision date. Citizens are also invited to comment either by calling 360-397-6067 or by e-mail at sr35@rtc.wa.gov.

At issue is whether the states should pay for a $350,000 Environmental Impact Study that might be shelved for years before funding for a new bridge becomes available. However, Robins said once the final crossing site is mapped and the EIS is completed, it would be possible to simply upgrade it with new species to be addressed in the EIS or other changes since the channel would be unchanged.

However, ODOT is facing numerous bridge repair costs on aging structures throughout the state and Robins said the Hood River crossing ranks as a low priority because there have only been two reported accidents within the past 20 years. He said although there have been numerous minor collisions, such as mirrors clipped in passing, these have gone largely unreported.

The Port of Hood River has initiated a number of ongoing maintenance projects to extend the life of the bridge but Robins said the day will come when the man-made structure needs to be replaced. He said by bankrolling some revenue now, local communities will better qualify for both state and federal grant dollars in the future.

Regardless of whether that recommendation is followed, Robins said the two states and the port need to address several jurisdictional issues to accommodate growing traffic volumes at both ends of the bridge. He said the greatest safety concerns are on the Oregon shore which has a tollbooth sited within a short distance of a four-way intersection and a freeway interchange.

The SR-35 crossing study began in the fall of 2000 as the project team and an advisory committee outlined 17 alternate locations for a new bridge — including a tunnel.

During subsequent meetings that number was whittled down to three possible long-term sites, all of which are tied into the existing Oregon bridge access road. All of the proposed replacement structures would be high enough to eliminate the need for a “lift span” to accommodate ship passage.

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