Opinion Pieces

Columbian: Oregon toll plan will hurt Clark County commuters

Southwest Washington commuters beware: If you work across the river, the state of Oregon is planning to make your drive a lot costlier.
Southwest Washington commuters beware: If you work across the river, the state of Oregon is planning to make your drive a lot costlier.

What’s worse is that your money won’t be going toward a new I-5 bridge, new lanes on I-5 or I-205, or to fix any of the infrastructure most of us use.

Since passing its transportation funding package last summer, Oregon has moved ahead with alarming speed on plans to place tolls on I-205 and I-5 at their edge of our shared interstate bridges. Just days ago, Oregon transportation consultants released recommendations that embraced a plan to toll all lanes on both freeways known as “Concept C.”

This plan to toll Washington commuters the moment they cross into Oregon would be a nightmare for our region. And no one should have any misconceptions here: Oregon politicians and decision makers whole-heartedly intend to implement this maximum-tolling plan.

Let’s examine their public statements about Concept C:

Oregon’s consultant report states: “This concept would by far generate the largest amount of revenue …”

As for Oregon’s other stated goal of “congestion relief,” their absence of congestion pricing tolls on 405 through Portland and along Route 26 speaks volumes, as The Columbian has already astutely highlighted. Nonetheless, their consultants strongly praise Concept C’s ability to reduce congestion.

When asked about implementing Concept C, Oregon consultants answered “not yet.” As in, that’s the next step. They said that if a smaller tolling project is successful, then Concept C would be the logical next step.

Does anyone think that Oregon won’t deem it a “success” when the money from Southwest Washington commuters starts rolling in?

They’ve put forward some tolling numbers for the various proposals, ranging from about $3.75 per round trip to almost $9.

Who’s going to provide the teachers, cashiers, machinists and bank tellers in Clark County with the extra $75 to $180 a month? No one. It’s coming out of their paychecks.

Oregon officials stated tolls are an “incentive that helps people to change their trips to different times of the day.” That may be possible for the Tesla driver who can work remotely on his laptop. But a vast majority of Southwest Washington residents who commute to Oregon don’t have a choice: they have to be there when the school bell rings or the business opens its doors. And they’ll be bearing the brunt of these tolls.

Impeding bridge solution

During my phone town halls, I’ve queried Southwest Washington residents multiple times on whether they’d be able to change the times they drive to and from work. Between 70 percent and 80 percent have responded “no.” One resident summed up Oregon’s scheme as a “screw job of the working class in Clark County.” It’s hard to argue with him.

And again, this money will be going to infrastructure in Oregon that people in Clark County rarely use. Not a penny is going to fix the I-5 Bridge. If Oregon wants to propose a user fee to fund a new I-5 bridge that’s supported by Clark County residents, let’s talk. But Oregon’s move to impose tolls now and commit that revenue elsewhere destroys trust with Clark County residents and is only impeding a solution for the I-5 Bridge.

I’ve fought for legislation in Congress that would prohibit federal approval of Oregon’s plan until they go back to the drawing board and make it fair. It’s been an uphill battle.

A strong bipartisan Oregon delegation has teamed up to protect Oregon’s massive tolling scheme and oppose my legislation. If Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell were to join me in protecting working-class Washington residents, we might have a chance. The same goes for Gov. Jay Inslee; it’s my hope he’ll get engaged and become a vocal advocate for Washington workers. So far, all three have been silent.

Oregon and Washington have worked together productively on countless issues, and it’s my hope we can come together here to forge a plan that treats Washingtonians fairly and helps Oregon accomplish its goals. But until then, I will not sit on the sideline and let Washington residents be treated like unwilling piggy banks.

U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler is a Republican from Battle Ground.