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Hood River Port takes input on bridge toll hike

Bridge toll costs on the Hood River-White Salmon Interstate Bridge will ramp up in February, plans anticipate, and the Gorge community has started weighing in.

A modest turnout showed up Tuesday for the Port of Hood River’s first public hearing on the topic. Six people — all from either Hood River or Klickitat counties — spoke on the record. The reception was critical overall, but attendees aired more suggestions than grievances.

Cash tolls for passenger vehicles will double to $2, while electronic tolling will rise from 80 cents to a dollar, on Feb. 1, 2018, according to port staff’s proposal.

Though the port budgeted for the toll increase in its 2017-2018 fiscal year plan, the commission must take separate action to roll out the change — a decision expected in December.

Michael McElwee, port executive director, gave a presentation touching on the rationale of the bridge toll increase, as well as the structure’s history and next steps.

Managing the aging bridge, which the port has owned since 1950, has become progressively more expensive as the port eyes $51 million in capital costs over the next 30 years.

Revenue from the toll increase will go solely toward the port’s Bridge Repair and Replacement Fund.

“As much as we have to assume that the bridge is there, we also have to proceed with equal vigor on replacement efforts,” McElwee said.

For years, local jurisdictions have gauged the expensive concept of replacing the bridge, a $250 million-plus price tag.

Leadership on a new bridge remains unclear, but legislative action pushed the replacement effort forward. Two 2017 Oregon House bills called for, respectively, $5 million for a pre-development study of replacing the bridge, and clarifying the port’s ability to take on public-private partnerships.

When costs rise at the Hood River Bridge, electronic tolling will offer a half-price discount, the plan states.

“That bifurcation is because … for people that utilize the bridge regularly and often are local, there should be a beneficial rate,” McElwee said. “More importantly, though, there is a significant reduction in transaction costs if it’s BreezeBy — electronic tolling — because of the staffing needs that are involved in manning the tollbooth.”

McElwee said he discussed the plan with the White Salmon City Council and Hood River County Board of Commissioners.

On Oct. 17, speakers urged the port to consider cheaper rates for locals, and expressed hope that new money goes toward replacing the bridge.

“There are people who just can’t afford $2 one way — $4 to come and work. I would ask you to take that into account and make some accommodation for those people,” said Linda Bitter from White Salmon.

Jose Guzman of Hood River said his brother took a pay-cut at a job on the Oregon side of the Columbia River because it was more viable than paying daily bridge tolls for a mill job in Washington.

Melissa Wittenberg, who lives in Underwood and owns Hood River property, said, “My thought is: Why can’t we charge the locals half of what you would charge for tourists? People that are here to see this beautiful Gorge are not going to even blink at paying a higher toll to go from one side of that bridge to the other.’’

She suggested a local sticker program.

About a year ago, the Port of Cascade Locks increased the toll rate per crossing at the Bridge of the Gods from $1 to $2 for non-Gorge residents; however, their local sticker program allows for a discounted $1 rate.

The Port of Hood River’s pending plan instead calls for a discount on electronic tolls.

Part two of the toll increase hearing takes place at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 7 in the Port Marina Center Conference Room, 1000 E. Port Marina Drive. That talk will precede the regularly scheduled port commission meeting.

Comments can be submitted at the “bridge” section of the Port of Hood River website, www.portofhood river.com.

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