Friday, October 28, 2011/lk
Beginning Jan. 1, a toll increase for the Hood River Interstate Bridge will raise the one-way rate for regular cash customers to $1 - a 33-percent bump from the 75-cent rate that has been in effect since 1994.
A discount of 25 percent will be given to BreezeBy customers, making a trip across the bridge 75 cents for those who take advantage of the electronic toll system. Ticket books will also be available at a discount of 20 percent off the $1 rate. The rate for motorcycles will be 75 cents and trucks will be $1 per axle, with the same discounted rates available.
With little deliberation, the Port of Hood River Board of Commissioners voted unanimously on the toll increase Tuesday; a decision that had been pending for several months. Earlier this year the board approved its annual budget, which included assumed revenue from a toll increase beginning in the new year. The port expects the fee increase to contribute an additional $600,000 annually, which will be designated to future bridge repair and maintenance costs.
The rate increase was sparked by budget committee recommendations and an engineering study completed early this year that explored long-term capital maintenance costs necessary to keep the bridge in safe and operational for at least 30 more years.
Opened in 1924, the bridge was found to have deficiencies, but is in remarkably good condition for its age, the study noted. Still, maintenance costs are expected to increase, with $30 million in projects estimated through 2040.
Although the commission is exploring design options for a bridge replacement, the roughly $200 million price tag for the project is a serious roadblock that will not likely be negotiated for many years.
The new port resolution states that funds derived from bridge toll increases in both 1994 and 2010 will be diverted into the port's bridge repair and replacement fund. That fund, as stated in the resolution (No. 1011-12-1), "is necessary to … provide additional revenue for future bridge expenditures and to maintain adequate financial reserves for port functions."
Present at Tuesday's meeting were Hood River Mayor Arthur Babitz and City Councilor Jeff Nichols. Both gave public testimony in support of the toll increase, but with encouragement that revenue from the toll increase be designated solely for bridge repair and maintenance and not other port functions.
Babitz said he had received numerous public comments about the toll increase, and that people seem to be understanding about the need to raise more money for increasing bridge maintenance costs.
"When I explain it to them, people's reaction seems to be, 'Oh, that makes sense; but how do we know that is how the money is going to be spent?'" Babitz said to the commission.
Nichols had a similar request for transparency of funds and maintenance-only use of the increased revenue.
Following those comments the commission voted to approve the toll increase. They did not, however, deliberate on wording in a section of the resolution that leaves a back door open for use of the net revenue from the toll increase on port debt expenses not associated with the bridge.
The section states, "Resolved, that the use of revenues derived from the 1994 and 2012 toll increases shall be limited to (a) payment of any expense associated with the bridge … and (b) payment of any expense (including without limitation payment of debt service, premium costs, and issuance costs) or meeting any other requirement associated with borrowings authorized by the Port Board of Commissioners."
Michael McElwee, port executive director, said language in that section is intended to allow for possible future loans by the port, with bridge toll revenue as a backing for the loan.
"When looking ahead, we don't know what situations will occur," McElwee said. "To borrow money, we need to be able to back up a loan with assets. The point is not to open the door to future spending; it's to provide suitable language to be able to backstop a loan with that revenue."