Saturday, July 17, 2010

If We Must Have Tolls, We Must Fight to Make Them Equitable

This Bridge Must Not be Paid for on the Backs of Clark County Commuters
Citizens, colleagues and friends--

When I ran for the office of Mayor, I told you honestly and in good faith that I would fight against tolls on the CRC. Unlike others, who were determined to put tolls on the table first and foremost with no regard to the injustice they bring, I was determined to fight them.

I have been working for you for nearly two years, both as a city council member and as Mayor, to try to keep tolls off of the I-5 bridge, because that regressive taxing measure unfairly targets Clark County commuters.  Some 51,000+ Clark County residents cross that bridge every day for work, paying Oregon income taxes for which they receive no representation. It is unconscionable to me to think that our commuters will pay the bulk of the local cost for this bridge, even though it is a federal asset that benefits everyone in this region.

But unfortunately, not every battle can be won. It has become apparent that tolling has been widely accepted by the project partners, community advocates, business and economic leadership, and most importantly, our state legislators (who make the final decision about tolling).

This has been a difficult decision for me. I do believe in this project, support the commerce it will allow to flow, the jobs it will create, and the sheer reality that something must be done about this corridor, sooner than later. The stark truth of the matter is that I am one vote on the Project Sponsors Council. I have worked hard for you, trying in council sessions and in private meetings, to convince others to reconsider the tolling issue, to no avail.

I could continue to protest – to throw up my arms and stomp out of the room, as some of my detractors have insisted would be the only proper course. But whether I protest or not, the bridge will go on and tolls will happen.

After much thought, I’ve determined that the worst thing I could do for citizens of Vancouver is to stop participating. As much as I dislike the idea of tolls, if I refuse to participate in the discussion then our fight will have been meaningless.

A New Approach to Tolling

At yesterday’s Project Sponsors Council meeting, I proposed a new way to think about tolls. The CRC “bridge impact area” is fully five miles in both Vancouver and Portland. It is not now, nor has it ever been, just a bridge. Not only will people who cross the bridge benefit dramatically with the improvement, but all people who drive in that 5-mile area, and all people who provide or receive goods and services in the region will benefit.

And so I propose that if we must have tolls, then we must toll fairly and equitably – which means residents on both sides of the river pay their fair share.

There are many, many users of the corridor who may not cross the bridge. They will benefit from the improvements, and should thus share in the local cost. I believe that if we must have tolls, then we should assess those tolls at each on- or off-ramp of the bridge influence area so that all users of the corridor will contribute to the local financing of the improvements, not just those users crossing the Columbia River.

Now, I am sure that my colleagues on the other side of the river, and many of my constituents who were formerly pro-tolls will not be fans of this proposal. But with many more users of the system paying for the improvements, we take some of the burden off of the commuters who are already paying dearly.

And any arguments against this form of ‘corridor tolling’, I believe, highlight the inequity of a tolling system. Over the years I have spoken with and heard from quite a few detractors who say that tolls are fine, since they wouldn’t have to pay them but who, when faced with a toll that accurately represents the project influence area, now feel that tolls are unjust.

Which brings me back to my initial argument, the position I held during the campaign, and the one I continue to hold – we must not – cannot – finance this bridge on the backs of Vancouver commuters.

This project benefits every single one of us in the region. If my colleagues are determined that this federal asset will not be paid for with federal and/or state dollars, if they are determined that there must be a local financing portion and that tolls are how that portion will be paid, then I challenge them to apply tolls equitably and fairly, across the board.