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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1 year ago

He left out the part that as long as the 2-lane sections of I-5 in downtown Portland remain unchanged (as per Oregon’s plans), then even a 20 lane or 50 lane crossing will have zero impact on the traffic, beyond simply moving the bottleneck to some other spot.

What is really needed is a third (and possibly a fourth) crossing of the Columbia River. One to the west of the existing Interstate bridge and one to the east of the I-205 bridge. Best would have the new “western crossing” connect with a freeway that bypasses the congested central Portland area, preferably far to the west and connecting back to I-5 to the south between where I-205 connects and Salem. That would move “through” traffic out of the already congested central Portland area (as the now seriously congested I-205 once did). In the meantime, the existing Interstate bridge could be “patched up” for another 35 to 50 years of use before replacement would be truly necessary. (Note: The Interstate bridge is “functionally obsolete” not “critically unsafe” — functionally obsolete means that it does not meet current highway lane width and shoulder width standards. (i.e. The Interstate bridge does not have any shoulder area at all.) While there are some seismic concerns, the bridge, with proper maintenance, should last for many more years.

1 year ago

$5 Billion!!! No way. Improve the I-5 bridge to make seismic updates. Then build 3 new bridges. 1 between Woodland and St Helens which would take traffic to and from the NW Industrial area of Portland. The second at 192nd Ave between Camas and Troutdale for the east county areas of both Clark and Multnomah Counties. The 3rd could be just down river of the BNSF railroad bridge to serve the Ports of Vancouver and Portland.

All 3 new bridges would be less than half the cost of the I-5 boondoggle.

And when it happens, and it will, the big earthquake takes out 1 or 2 of the 4 bridges there will still be 2/3 bridges for Interstate travel.

Imagine if the Willamette River had only 1 bridge for travel for the east/west travel. Build 3 more bridges over the Columbia, that makes the most sense.

K. E
K. E
1 year ago

What happened to all the taxpayers money the city/architects spent a few years ago creating a new bridge design????

1 year ago

Tolls = more $$$ for PERS.

11 months ago

Toll rates on SR 520 Bridge over Lake Washington between Seattle and the east side fluctuate throughout the day, with the highest tolls during peak commute times on weekdays.
Peak time tolls for a car – $6.30 one-way, with a $2 discount for carrying a transponder tracking device to monitor movements.
Peak time 11 AM-6 PM tolls for an 6-axle vehicle are $13.95 one-way
Tolls for 18-wheel vehicles not listed at the link.

Toll increase likely for State Route 520 Bridge due to decline in revenueWith a sharp decline in toll revenue due to the pandemic, drivers can expect an increase in toll rates as the state looks to make up that lost money.

“The Washington State Transportation Commission began discussing new toll rates, which could include a 120-day emergency rate, followed by a permanent rate. To meet upcoming financial and legal obligations, toll rates could increase an estimated 25-35%.” 

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