Originally published May 10, 2017 at midnight, updated May 10, 2017 at midnight
Passage on the Hood River-White Salmon Interstate Bridge may become more expensive in the coming years, according to pending budgeting plans by the Port of Hood River.
Port staff and budget committee members have requested that the port district’s 2017-2018 fiscal year budget include a toll hike option. It would require separate action by the elected port commission — after the budgeting process — to roll out.
The plan comes amid cost challenges tied to the aging steel bridge, which the port has owned and managed since 1950.
Members of the budget committee recommended the following toll proposals at their April 18 meeting:
• Passenger cars: Doubling cash tolls from $1 to $2, and increasing electronic tolling from 80 cents to $1 for Breezeby account users.
• Commercial trucks: Tripling the rate from $1 to $3 cash toll per axle, or $2 per axle via Breezeby.
The toll cost boost would be factored into the latter part of the fiscal year, and it could take effect by November or January (two options being considered), though a date hasn’t been set.
The budget will move up to the elected port commission for a hearing May 16, followed by another meeting June 2 where the panel expects to adopt the fiscal plan, along with any changes made. Implementing the bridge toll would require separate action down the road by the port commission.
Michael McElwee, port executive director, said the toll hike addresses existing maintenance needs as well as the possibility of replacing the bridge.
“It’s a time of reckoning for the bridge,” McElwee said, in which the port has reached “a fork in the road.”
The bridge will cost about $48 million to maintain for the next 15 years. The toll increase would build up reserves, assuming that either path could become a reality.
The port commission would need to schedule implementation as a separate action item, to which port staff expect several months to factor in public outreach and gathering feedback. The commission would then settle on a plan in which toll revenue is restricted to a bridge fund, McElwee said.
McElwee noted that following the May special district election, three new port commissioners will take office July 1, potentially altering the five-member board’s policy direction regarding bridge tolls.
Fred Kowell, port chief financial officer, explained that the last major toll cash toll increase was in 2012, when the rate went up from 75 cents to $1. In 2015, the electronic tolling rate went up by about 5 cents.
Kowell said a means of avoiding “rate shock,” similar to a utility company, is to raise the toll and build up reserves, so costs don’t rise exponentially.
He acknowledged that via the new toll hike, cash tolls will go up at a steeper rate than electronic fares. That would encourage Breezeby use, which requires less staff time to cover. “It’s more expensive for the port to have a cash toll,” he said.
Similarly, the by-axle rate for commercial trucks will ramp up, as “trucks do a disproportionate amount of damage to the bridge.”
Plans have long considered ways to retire the now 93-year-old interstate truss bridge and make way for a new one.
The port has advocated in Salem and Washington, D.C., for state and federal support to spark plans for a new bridge. For instance, a bill in the Oregon Legislature would give the port $5 million toward pre-development work needed for the endeavor, assuming the state passes a comprehensive transportation package.
However, McElwee noted that if major funding support comes in for the bridge, it will require a local match. By rough estimates, a new bridge — a $300 million price tag — could carry a match of $90-100 million for local governments to cover, and details of the new bridge’s governance remain uncertain.
The Port of Cascade Locks increased tolls at the Bridge of the Gods, Hood River County’s only other Columbia River interstate bridge, last summer.
Crossing the BOTG doubled from $1 to $2 for non-Gorge residents; however, a local sticker program proving residency in the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area allows for a discounted $1 rate. The cost for large trucks went up by axle, starting at $3 for two axles.
Bridge maintenance costs also spurred the Port of Cascade Locks’ decision. The port identified more than $14 million in upkeep work over the next decade to keep the bridge open at its current load rating.