Bridge toll increase funds in Port budget

July 6, 2011[/br]Although the increase has not yet been approved by the board of commissioners, additional revenue from an increase is included in the new budget, which the commission voted to approve

The Port of Hood River adopted its annual budget for fiscal 2011-12, which began July 1. For the most part, the budget is business as usual for the port, with budget activities categorized into three funds: general fund, bridge repair/replacement fund and revenue fund.

Probably the most notable element for the public is an increase in assumed revenue obtained by a toll increase for the Hood River Toll Bridge. Although the increase has not yet been approved by the board of commissioners, additional revenue from an increase is included in the new budget, which the commission voted to approve at its June 21 public meeting. The commission still must vote specifically on a toll increase, which would go into effect January 2012.

If approved, the bridge fees would be $1 for cash customers and 75 cents for BreezeBy customers; an increase of 25 cents and 12 cents, respectively.

Port Executive Director Michael McElwee said he has received several inquiries and comments regarding the potential toll increase. To inform the public, the port has created a question and answer informational page on its website. A variety of "commonly asked questions" are addressed, from the perspective of port staff.

The following are highlights from the information (for the full text, visit portofhoodriver.com). The port holds commission meetings on the first and third Tuesdays of every month, where public comments are allowed at the beginning of each meeting. As the September timeline for a vote on a bridge toll increase approaches, public comments on the matter are encouraged.

Why is a toll increase necessary?

The port needs to maintain the bridge in a safe and operational condition for many years. Earlier this year, the port completed an analysis that identified maintenance needs and capital projects that are likely to occur over the next 30 years. The port needs to have enough project funds and reserves to meet these demands.

Why can't the port use existing funds?

Since the last toll increase in 1994, the port has invested more than $16 million into the bridge's infrastructure. Major projects include $350,126 for seismic reinforcement, $1.75 million to widen the bridge's Washington approach, $2.2 million to rehabilitate the lift span, $3.7 million to construct a four-lane toll plaza and introduce BreezeBy electronic tolling and $8.1 million to replace the steel deck. The port is currently facing a bridge painting project estimated at $4.75 million.

All of these projects have diminished the port's reserves. It does not appear that federal or state assistance will be available for bridge painting. The port also needs to maintain adequate funds for unforeseen projects that may occur.

What would the toll increase pay for?

Increased bridge tolls would offset costs of the pending painting projects and help build reserves for more maintenance that will be required to keep the bridge safe and viable for the next 30 years. The proposed toll increase is anticipated to contribute approximately $400,000 annually to help offset these increased costs.

Do all bridge revenues pay for bridge projects?

No. The port dedicated the 1994 25-cent toll increase to the bridge repair and replacement Fund. The balance of the toll is used on bridge projects and other port properties, including industrial and recreation properties vital to local employment.

Why not use property taxes to support the bridge?

The port's tax rate is among the lowest in Hood River County: 0.0332 per $1,000, or $3.32 for a $100,000 home. Fiscal year 2011-12 tax collections are estimated at $55,990.

Is other local, state or federal money available to maintain the bridge?

Neither Oregon nor Washington contributes to the bridge's maintenance. Federal help has been received in the past on some bridge capital projects, but this source of funding has evaporated in recent years. No gas tax dollars are used to support the bridge. No city, county or education tax revenues support the bridge. The port is the only agency responsible to keep the bridge open, safe and operational.

What is BreezeBy, and how to I get an account?

Activated in 2007, BreezeBy is an automated tolling system designed to accelerate commute times and make bridge crossing more convenient for regular users. Motorists who establish secure BreezeBy accounts are able to roll through the toll plaza without stopping to pay toll. Users are given a windshield transponder for their vehicle, and each time they cross the bridge the discounted toll is automatically deducted from their BreezeBy account. When an account gets low, users have the option of having their account automatically reloaded, or replenish by phone. Credit cards, cash and checks can be used for BreezeBy account deposits.

Since its introduction, BreezeBy has proven popular and efficient. An estimated 40 percent of regular bridge users have BreezeBy accounts.

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