Tolling and traffic analysis coming to Interstate Bridge program late next year

Data will come after solution is provided on Interstate Bridge Replacement Program

It appears the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program (IBRP) will offer a solution before it has the final traffic data. Greg Johnson, IBRP administrator, has stated he hopes to have a specific bridge design recommendation ready for the public to review by March of 2022. Yet traffic data apparently won’t be completed until later next year.

Two years ago, Governors Jay Inslee and Kate Brown signed a memorandum of intent, seeking to replace the I-5 bridge across the Columbia River. It put in motion the creation of a Bi-state Bridge Committee of 16 legislators from both states. Johnson was hired by ODOT and WSDOT to head the team of transportation bureaucrats and consultants leading the project. A total of $44 million was initially allocated to fund the restart.

At that joint press conference held in Vancouver, Brown said: “I think what else is key is that we’re going to be doing a traffic analysis ahead of time to help us determine what’s the best solution for the I-5 Bridge Replacement Project.”

Governors Jay Inslee and Kate Brown signed a memorandum of understanding in Nov. 2019 laying the groundwork for the current Interstate Bridge Replacement Program. Brown said “we’re going to be doing a traffic analysis ahead of time to help us determine what’s the best solution for the I-5 Bridge Replacement Project.” Photo by Mike Schultz
Governors Jay Inslee and Kate Brown signed a memorandum of understanding in Nov. 2019 laying the groundwork for the current Interstate Bridge Replacement Program. Brown said “we’re going to be doing a traffic analysis ahead of time to help us determine what’s the best solution for the I-5 Bridge Replacement Project.” Photo by Mike Schultz

It is now almost two years later. Has the IBRP team conducted a new traffic analysis to determine what’s the best solution for the I-5 Bridge replacement project? Clark County Today asked for the details of any traffic analysis. 

“The Interstate Bridge Replacement (IBR) program is currently collecting new traffic data and conducting preliminary traffic modeling that will be used to inform the evaluation of preliminary design options that will be considered to identify the IBR solution early next year,” said Frank Green, IBR assistant program administrator. “More in-depth traffic modeling is expected to be completed in mid to late 2022 as a critical component of the federal environmental review process.”

That appears to contradict the governor’s promise of doing a traffic analysis ahead of time to determine the best solution.

At the July 1 Community Advisory Group (CAG) meeting, Johnson shared that the replacement bridge will have three through lanes. The process has previously revealed that citizens’ primary desire for a replacement bridge is a reduction in traffic congestion. The only variable would be how many auxiliary lanes for merging and weaving would be added according to Johnson.

It appears the IBRP will offer a solution, before they have the data on traffic modeling. Johnson and his team have promised to be “data driven” multiple times.

Citizens have repeatedly asked for more data. The CAG had a listening session in June. The feedback was that people wanted them to “plan for a 100-year bridge with future needs and adaptability so we aren’t here in 20 years.”

At a Sept. Hayden Island community engagement session, island residents repeatedly asked for the data in order to provide input on the options they were presented. “Without seeing traffic numbers and data, I can’t provide an educated opinion,” said one person. “Without this information, we’re simply hearing people’s opinions and anecdotes.”

“We know there are three lanes to the north, three through lanes to the south,” Johnson said in July. “So we pretty much know there’ll be three through lanes on this bridge. But the issue is how many auxiliary lanes to operate this bridge appropriately, to take some of those merge and weave movements and separate them from the through traffic.”

His team will look at four key questions and is gathering data. The key questions are:

  • How many auxiliary lanes will there be on the bridge? 
  • Will there be interchanges on Hayden Island or will they be served from Marine Drive?
  • What type of high capacity transit will there be?
  • Will they replace the north Portland Harbor Bridge?

“We’re going to be doing some deep dives,” Johnson said. The IBRP team will be running models and hopefully have answers for all of those four questions early in 2022. He hopes to share that information in February or March next year, as he had promised in July. 

Yet three months later, the data and traffic modeling won’t be completed until after the March reveal of the project details.

“What data is informing your preliminary design,” transportation architect Kevin Peterson asked. “Is this the cart before the horse? Type, size and location studies are needed.’’

Peterson scrutinized all the traffic data in the Columbia River Crossing (CRC) effort. He identified the need for five lanes in each direction by 2030 and eight lanes in each direction by 2060. 

Last month, Raymond Mabey, IBRP assistant program administrator, told the Bi-state Bridge Committee of 16 legislators from Oregon and Washington the following. “A transparent, data-driven process is informing IBR program work, along with input from our partner agencies, stakeholders, and community members.”

Need for tolling debated

At that same 2019 signing ceremony, Vancouver Mayor Ann McEnerny-Ogle stated the following:

“Each time we go back to Washington, D.C. we ask that same question, and each time the answer is ‘there are no projects that are not being tolled,” said McEnerney-Ogle. “Every single project has a toll.”

Yet there is ample evidence of many projects not needing tolls to pay for the project.

Recently, the Clark County Council had shared their desires for the IBRP. Included was a preference there be no tolls and a focus on traffic congestion relief. The County Council members rejected tolling as a means to pay for the project, and rejected TriMet’s light rail as a form of mass transit. The council members said tolls “would have a negative impact on all Clark County residents, particularly those with low income.” 

Furthermore, federal law calls for roads funded by the federal government to essentially be “free of tolls.” Councilor Gary Medivigy provided the following reference:

“The Federal-Aid Road Act of 1916 (39 Stat. 355), which provided federal funds to states for highway construction, included the requirement that all roads funded under the act be ‘free from tolls of all kinds.’ Following the funding of the Interstate System in 1956, the ‘freedom from tolls’ policy was reaffirmed (23 U.S.C. §301).”

Clark County Today asked IBRP if WSP USA and Greg Johnson’s team could build a replacement Interstate Bridge without needing tolls? We gave the example of WSP’s construction of the eight-lane Ravenel bridge in Charleston, South Carolina for $632 million and no tolls.

“Given the funding reality for large transportation projects nationwide, it is assumed that a bridge replacement will require revenue from a diverse range of sources, including federal funds, tolling, and state funds from both Oregon and Washington,” Green said. “Cost estimates and potential funding sources will be updated as work continues to identify and analyze river crossing and transit options. The program scope will be tailored to align with available funding.”

Yet there are many bridge projects around the nation that do NOT have tolls. The 13,200-foot long Ravenel bridge has eight lanes and was built toll free 16 years ago. “We’re not big on tolls,” said Billy Swails, former mayor of Mt. Pleasant, S.C.

During the failed Columbia River Crossing project, tolling became a funding source to pay back roughly $1.4 billion in borrowed money.

ODOT is now moving forward with their “congestion pricing” tolling effort that begins with the I-205 Abernethy Bridge project. It will do a seismic upgrade to the bridge while adding a lane. It will further add a new lane on I-205 to Stafford Rd. The tolls could begin as early as 2024 according to some reports.

ODOT is currently getting a lot of pushback from Clackamas County residents on the tolling aspect of the project. According to one recent news report:

“The proposals have been deeply unpopular among both the general public and state and elected officials. Online portals the state set up to collect feedback attracted nearly 5,000 comments — most of them in opposition — and a presentation last September stunned the Canby City Council when ODOT representatives shared projections showing tolls could spike traffic on Highway 99E by up to 40 percent.”

“You’re actually going to make things worse,” Canby Council president Tim Dale stated emphatically a year ago. This was due to the significant amount of traffic diversion the tolling will cause, as people seek to avoid paying to drive on I-205. 

The tolling effort was created with the passage of HB 2017 in the Oregon State Legislature. It mandated ODOT study tolling “beginning at the border with Washington” on both I-5 and I-205. ODOT is now moving forward with a “congestion pricing” version of tolling, that charges more when roads are congested, and less when they are not. 

Vancouver City Council members Bart Hansen and Sarah Fox expressed concerns about what was and wasn’t specified in the resolution regarding the IBRP recently approved by the Vancouver city council. Hansen was concerned that the congestion pricing form of tolling could be seen as “roads for the rich” who could afford the tolls. He believed the poor couldn’t afford the tolls and therefore wouldn’t benefit from any improvements.

“We really need to think about all of those jobs that don’t have as much choice when it comes to changing the time of day that they travel,” Fox said. She was concerned about the large portion of the population that is below median income not being able to afford tolls.

Hansen wanted to see current data regarding bridge traffic and future traffic projection numbers. He acknowledges Vancouver and Clark County are growing and he only expects more vehicles to be on the road.

Congestion mitigation can take many possible forms, including ways to force people off the road. Congestion pricing could make crossing the bridge prohibitively expensive. Hansen was concerned that people really don’t understand what that means, and is concerned that the council supports improvements that improve traffic congestion.

Paying multiple tolls was another concern of Hansen. “When you explain to folks you can pay a toll to go over the bridge, and then when you cross to the other side, you will pay into congestion mitigation,” he said. “Well, hold on. You mean, I’m not just gonna get charged for crossing the bridge? No, that’s just the beginning.”

The Washington legislature has recently had to bail out tolling facilities in the Puget Sound region. The I-405 HOT lanes use congestion pricing and failed to generate enough revenue during the pandemic to cover the cost of collection.  

Recently, ODOT had a citizen ask an appropriate question. “Why don’t people know about the tolling?” The public is beginning to pay attention as the use of tolls to pay for transportation gets closer to becoming a reality.

A low cost bridge is an option that would avoid the need to borrow money to fund a replacement bridge. Just ask the mayor of Mt. Pleasant, S.C.

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