The Toll Under the Bridge

Seattle's experience shows the CRC's projections are flimsier than ever.

It's human nature: Start charging people for something they've been getting for free, and many won't want it anymore.

Take, for example, a new toll for a bridge. In the Seattle area, one out of every three cars that once used the SR 520 bridge across Lake Washington stopped doing so before 2011, when the state started charging a $3.50 per trip toll. (It's $5 during peak hours.)

The change was so dramatic, Washington state documents show, it will take two decades before the number of cars using the bridge climbs back to levels seen just two years ago.

The Seattle lesson holds enormous value for Oregonians, whose leaders claim the Columbia River Crossing is a $3.5 billion necessity because traffic demands on the Interstate 5 bridge will continue to grow.

"There is a compelling need for the state of Oregon to move forward," Oregon Department of Transportation Director Matt Garrett told a state legislative committee May 21. "We have built our argument on a strong business case."

But documents show Oregon officials are still using inflated traffic projections to justify the project—even with evidence from Seattle that a toll will drive cars away from the bridge. 

It's an assumption one outside expert watching the CRC calls "preposterous."

Clark Williams-Derry, director of programs at Sightline Institute, a Seattle think tank, says the CRC is putting Oregon and Washington taxpayers at risk if it doesn't acknowledge tolls will drive away traffic.

The CRC includes a new freeway bridge and light-rail line over the Columbia, ostensibly to help address chronic congestion along I-5. To build the bridges, the states of Oregon and Washington have pledged to kick in $450 million each-—but lawmakers have not approved the expenditures. The CRC is also counting on money from the feds, who so far are nowhere in sight.

In addition, both states are counting on tolls to raise about $1.3 billion to pay off debt. Oregon Treasurer Ted Wheeler warned last year that revenue projections were wrong and the bridge would not pay for itself as promised.

"What we're seeing in Seattle is that when there are alternatives, people are definitely avoiding the tolls," Williams-Derry says. "The two situations are pretty analogous."

Drivers in Washington have two routes that allow them to avoid the tolls on the SR 520 bridge.

In Oregon, drivers can use I-205's Glenn Jackson Bridge over the Columbia. Officials say they have no plans to toll the Jackson Bridge.

Nothing will stop drivers from using the Jackson to avoid new I-5 tolls, and the evidence is they will—in droves.

Williams-Derry's review shows the number of vehicles crossing the 520 bridge has dropped 32 percent, from 100,100 to 68,100, since the state starting charging tolls.

Washington's analysis of lost revenues from the 520 comes in what's called an "investment grade" analysis required by bond companies and lenders before they'll float money for a construction project. Washington officials have done the analysis in hopes of selling bonds to rebuild the 520 bridge.

Oregon has not yet done an analysis that could withstand such close scrutiny.

In May, Garrett told lawmakers ODOT estimates 157,000 vehicles will use the I-5 bridge by 2030. That's a more modest number than the 178,000 figure in the official record of decision used to justify the project.

As WW has previously reported, ODOT officials are relying on outdated projections (see "A Bridge Too False," WW, June 1, 2011).

To make matters worse, the experience in Washington of adding tolls means the CRC will be lucky to see its traffic counts climb back to today's numbers (about 128,000 vehicles a day) by 2030.

CRC spokeswoman Mandy Putney says the comparison between the 520 project and the CRC is apples to oranges and that a projected population increase of 1 million people in metropolitan Portland over the next two decades will drive I-5 bridge traffic increases.

Williams-Derry says Oregon and Washington should impose tolls on the I-5 bridge now to get a real-world count of how many cars avoid paying tolls and divert to I-205. Without doing so, he says, “They are flying blind.”