Opinion: $18 for 18-wheelers? I-5 tolls for a new bridge don’t add up

Portland economist Joe Cortright discusses the financial impact tolls on I-5 and I-205 would have on travelers

Joe Cortright
For Clark County Today

Editor’s note: This column originally appeared in the Portland Business Journal and is published here with the permission of Joe Cortright and the Portland Business Journal.

Portland economist Joe Cortright discusses the financial impact tolls on I-5 and I-205 would have on travelers.
Joe Cortright

By now, you may have heard about plans to rebuild the I-5 bridges across the Columbia River. While it’s called the “Interstate Bridge Replacement” it’s really a vastly larger, more expensive project: it’s a five-mile long, 12-lane wide freeway that will cost roughly $5 billion.

The Oregon and Washington highway departments aren’t talking much about how the much the project will cost, or who will pay, but the short answer is: those who drive cars and trucks across the bridge.

The sketchy financial plans for the project concede that a third or more of the money to pay for this project will come from tolling the new bridge. The plan counts on raising $1.3 billion by selling bonds backed by decades of future tolls.

And how high will the tolls be? Again, the Oregon and Washington transportation departments aren’t saying. But the financial consultants they hired for the Columbia River Crossing calculated that tolls would have to be $3.25 for cars and as much as $18, for trucks in order to raise the needed cash. These figures come from the 2013 “Investment Grade Analysis” prepared for the CRC, which still has yet to be updated.

So, if you’re a regular rush hour commuter across the Columbia, you’ll pay about $6.50 per day, and about $1,600 per year (50 weeks a year, 5 days a week, $6.50 per day).

And, truckers will pay $18 to cross the bridge; Under the toll plans, big trucks pay five times the toll charged to passenger cars, and if they don’t have an electronic transponder, they’ll pay an additional surcharge of $1.77 for each crossing.

The DOTs argue that the bridge is critical to freight movement, but what tolling does is add $18 to the cost of every peak hour truck trip across the river. To put this in context, the average cost of running a big truck is about $1.50 cents a mile (including driver wages, fuel and depreciation). That means an $18 toll is financially the same as a 10-mile detour. If you’re concerned about unduly burdening the freight economy, this is probably not a good idea.

And while some may think that the need for “just in time” delivery makes this all worthwhile, you should know that most truck trips aren’t timed to the minute: instead drivers usually have a delivery window or deadline, and as long as they meet that, they don’t earn any extra money for arriving early or shaving a few minutes off the trip. Tolls add to the cost of a trip, but don’t earn the driver any more money.

Little wonder that research commissioned by the U.S. DOT shows that most truckers drive out of their way to avoid tolled roadways.

It’s okay to complain about traffic congestion, but before we incur billions of dollars of debt for a giant highway expansion project, we should ask whether any of the people who might use it think it’s worth even the small fraction of the cost that they’ll be asked to pay. Unless truckers are lining up saying they really want to pay $18 every time they drive across the new I-5 bridge, it’s probably not worth it.

Joe Cortright is a longtime Portland economist whose firm Impresa specializes in regional economic and industry analysis.

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