Tolling federally funded highways like Interstate 5 and Interstate 205 is illegal, except when it's not. So could tolls be used to pay part of the cost of replacing the Interstate 5 Bridge?
Under federal law, Title 23 of the U.S. highways code, it appears that tolls are not allowed on federally funded infrastructure projects. But like with so many laws, exemptions have been created over time.
There are two so-called "mainstream" tolling programs, which don't restrict the number of states or projects that can get federal tolling authority. They also don't require an agreement with the Federal Highway Administration.
The first is the general toll program. This allows for tolling that pays for the construction of new highways, new additional lanes on existing highways, reconstruction of non-interstate highways, reconstruction or replacement of bridges or tunnels, and, finally, capital improvements to infrastructure that is already tolled.
The second kind of tolling allows for tolling of vehicles using high-occupancy vehicle lanes.
Then there are tolling projects that the federal government has authorized. These are restricted to a select number of slots. Agencies charging the tolls are required to have an agreement with the Federal Highway Administration.
The first pilot project allows turning a free highway into a toll road to meet the infrastructure's reconstruction or rehabilitation needs. The second allows for tolling on existing infrastructure if variable tolls are charged to reduce congestion.
Washington currently has five tolled infrastructures: the state Highway 16 Tacoma Narrows Bridge, the state Highway 520 floating bridge, the state Highway 99 tunnel, the Interstate 405 Express Toll Lanes and the state Highway 167 High Occupancy Toll Lanes. All five are in the Puget Sound region.
The projects were tolled for different reasons, and some fit into different federal tolling categories. The Tacoma Narrows Bridge, for instance, has a flat toll used to repay the cost of its construction. It was the first of the current tolling projects, created in 2007. The Highway 520 floating bridge and Highway 99 tunnel in Seattle were tolled to pay for construction but also use variable tolling to reduce congestion. Interstate 405 and state Highway 167 are tolled specifically to regulate congestion east of Seattle.
This all comes into play with the planned new Interstate 5 bridge.
History of Local Tolling
Tolling is not alien to the region; the current Interstate 5 bridge has been tolled twice, once after each span was completed.
The original northbound span, opened in 1917, charged a 5-cent toll for all horses and cars until 1929. The Interstate 5 system, which incorporated the bridge, wasn't designated until 1957. At the time, the southbound span was under construction. It opened in 1960. Both bridges were then tolled until 1966.
As part of the previous bridge project, the Columbia River Crossing, the Washington Legislature authorized tolling. For the new bridge to gain tolling approval, the legislature will need to approve the tolling project before it can go into effect. This will likely come up in the 2023 legislative session.
The Washington State Transportation Commission oversees toll rates, policies and exemptions, according to state law. But because the bridge is a bi-state project, Oregon's tolling authority, the Oregon Transportation Commission, will be working with the Washington commission to set the tolling policies and rates. Oregon has already approved tolling on the new I-5 bridge.
The agencies and bridge program don't yet know how the process for setting the toll rates and such will go. It's expected that tolling won't start until late 2025 or early 2026, assuming the Washington Legislature grants its approval for the project.
Tolling will be used to fund part of the new bridge's construction cost. The Interstate Bridge Replacement Program also planned for the bridge to use variable tolling to manage congestion and raise revenue. Because of this, the program is expected to meet the federal tolling exemptions.
A February executive summary from the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program stated the new bridge would incorporate electronic tolling, so drivers won't stop at toll booths like they did in the 20th century.
"The system includes roadside toll point equipment that detects vehicles with in-vehicle transponders (or mobile devices) or that photographs license plates; a host software system that serves as the central database and processor for the toll collection system; and a customer service center/back-office system that performs all toll transaction processing and customer-facing operations related to tolling," read the summary.
The system is expected to be interoperable with other tolls in Western states, including Washington, Oregon, California, Utah and Colorado.
A February memo suggested that Oregon would administer tolling on the bridge. The two transportation agencies formally made the announcement in March.
"When the Columbia River Crossing project was underway, (the Washington State Department of Transportation) was the only agency with current toll operations, and both agencies agreed that (the Washington State Department of Transportation) would administer the tolls on the Interstate Bridge," read the memo from Kristopher Strickler, director of the Oregon Department of Transportation, to the Oregon Transportation Commission. "Since that time, legislation has been signed to allow (the Oregon Department of Transportation) to implement tolling operations in Oregon."
Oregon is initiating its own congestion-based tolling program on Portland's freeway system. Tolling is expected to begin there by late 2024.