Louisville, Ky., Built the Tollway Portland Dreams of. It’s Empty.

Traffic demand for the bridges cratered—declining 49% from 2013 to 2018.

Highway tolls are coming to the Columbia River. (Henry Cromett)

More than five years ago—not long after Oregon and Washington’s last failed attempt to build a new bridge between the two states—a progressive city and the Clark County to its north succeeded in opening a $1.3 billion bridge expansion.

It wasn’t Portland. It was Louisville, Ky.

Expanded to ease commuter traffic between Louisville and Southern Indiana, the John F. Kennedy Memorial and Abraham Lincoln bridges doubled the number of lanes from six to 12—and began levying a toll on regular commuters of as little as $1 each way.

Planners added more lanes over the Ohio River to accommodate more traffic. But in the two years after the bridges were expanded, car traffic across them didn’t increase.

Instead, traffic demand for the bridges cratered—declining 49% from 2013 to 2018, two years after the bridges opened and well before the pandemic put a halt on commuting.

As Oregon and Washington try again to replace an aging bridge and expand its lanes, critics say the Kentucky example offers a cautionary tale: It raises questions about the wisdom of expanding highways before attempting to control traffic with tolling. It also casts doubt on the financial underpinnings of the Oregon-Washington project, which could cost up to $4.81 billion, according to official estimates last year.

A glance at traffic cameras in Louisville should send a warning to Oregon, says economist Joe Cortright.

“This is rush hour,” says Cortright, showing WW a photo of a nearly empty bridge. “Basically, there’s no one; you couldn’t fill up either one of those bridges”—the south- or northbound crossings.

The desolate lanes hint that if planners want to pay for a new Columbia River bridge with tolling, they should expect those tolls to reduce traffic—and adjust their construction budgets accordingly.

The last attempt at a new bridge across the Columbia River collapsed in 2013 when Washington state Republicans, who controlled the legislature, refused to approve the deal. The project had garnered Republican opposition because the project included light rail and spent $200 million just on planning and design. In Oregon, progressives opposed highway expansion, and critics had highlighted escalating costs and overestimates of how much traffic would cross the bridge.

Clark County, Wash., critics continue to raise objections to mass transit on the bridge. But tolls will also be a flashpoint—one that transportation officials shepherding the project to completion have every reason to divert public attention from.

After Indiana reported the results of its new tolled bridge project, the reception from critics was caustic: A local opponent of the Kentucky-Indiana project, conservative writer and consultant Aaron M. Renn, saw the traffic data in 2018 and called the bridges “a total waste” and “the biggest transportation boondoggle of the 21st century to date.”

But Oregon’s tolling plan might contain greater risks. Oregon and Washington’s current financial plan rests on a much higher tolls than the ones in Kentucky.

Before the Interstate 5 bridge project folded, the tolls expected to be charged if the bridge were completed ran as high as $3.25 each way to cover costs. That financial plan was built into projections for the new bridge project, released in December 2020, when planners revived the deal.

And since that toll is a lot higher than Louisville’s, it could reduce traffic demand even further.

Cortright, a longtime critic of additional lanes, says the lesson is clear: Toll, then build fewer lanes.

“The Louisville traffic experiment shows us that there’s one surefire fix for traffic congestion: road pricing,” Cortright writes in a recent essay. “Even a very modest toll (one that asks road users to pay only a third or so, at most, of the costs of the roads they’re using) will cause traffic congestion to disappear. This traffic experiment shows the folly and waste of building additional capacity.”

For this bridge, Cortright argues that officials should conduct a higher-quality analysis of traffic projections—an investment grade analysis used to back bonds that finance the project—early in the process before design decisions are made.

“There’s no good reason for them to delay getting this information before we make this financial commitment,” says Cortright. “Last time, the [Columbia River Crossing] investment grade analysis showed that the two DOTs overestimated the amount of traffic on the new I-5 bridge by about 100%, and underestimated the minimum tolls they would have to charge by 100%.”

Greg Johnson, administrator of the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program representing both states, notes that tolling figures are just preliminary. “The $3.25 may or may not be relevant,” Johnson says.

Other differences: The IBR project has floated plans to increase lanes from six to as many as 10, a smaller expansion than in Kentucky, and it’s expected to include mass transit. (IBR would not specify how wide the highway would be—a sleight of hand the Oregon Department of Transportation has played in the Rose Quarter, where the width of I-5 remains an issue and ODOT has reserved a massive margin on the highway’s shoulders.)

To be sure, there are some reasons Oregon might expect more cars. In Louisville, there are other bridges across the Ohio River—and even a free bridge close to the tolled bridges that offers commuters an escape option.

“There are 14 lanes of traffic that cross the Columbia River in the Portland-Vancouver area,” says Johnson. “And in Louisville into Southern Indiana, there are 32 or 34 lanes that cross in that area. It is not valid to make predictions regarding how aspects of a bridge replacement solution in our region could function based on a comparison to a project from another part of the country with different conditions.”

It’s also a warning sign of what failure to coordinate tolls in the region could look like. Transportation officials haven’t decided if, when or how to place tolls on the other highway span across the Columbia: the Glenn Jackson Bridge in East Portland. Unlike the I-5 bridge, the bridge that carries Interstate 205 traffic doesn’t need tolling to pay for its construction.

But it does need to deter motorists from taking a detour.

“Louisville empirically shows that tolling dramatically reduces or redirects traffic,” says Renn. “How much tolling would reduce total demand in a scenario where Portland tolled all of the Columbia River crossing is an open question. But a situation with some tolled bridges and some untolled seems a recipe for the Louisville scenario.”

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