Ore. treasurer not sold on Columbia bridge plan

PORTLAND — State Treasurer Ted Wheeler says he’s not convinced that Oregon can collect all the tolls needed to pay for a new Interstate 5 bridge across the Columbia River, and he won’t OK construction debt until he is.

A consulting company’s analysis of the new plan for Oregon to go it alone on the bridge linking Portland and Vancouver, Wash., is assuring on one score, Wheeler told the Oregonian.

“If the assumptions underlying the projections made by the consultants are valid, the tolls will be sufficient to service the bonds,” Wheeler said. “That said, we need to be sure Oregon can collect them. I won’t issue the bonds unless we get clarity on these issues.”

Oregon lawmakers are expected to consider the plan in a few weeks, and Wheeler’s qualms won’t reassure them, The Oregonian reported.

“I think the votes are really hard to find for an Oregon-only, or Oregon-led project,” said Republican Sen. Bruce Starr of Hillsboro, a key supporter of the project.

Collecting tolls has been a question mark since Washington state dropped out of the project last year, and Oregon backers recast the proposal, now expected to cost $2.8 billion.

Oregon planners hope most bridge users will have accounts and transponders in their vehicles to count and pay for each crossing.

For those without an account, the state would use technology that tracks drivers by photographing their license plates and then sends bills to them.

Oregon Department of Transportation officials say the state has authority to collect tolls across state lines, just as it can enforce a traffic ticket. They say they’re working with Washington officials on toll collection tools.

The consultants assumed there will be enough revenue to pay for the project even if 10 percent of the tolls are never collected, a rate of nonpayment that’s much worse than other tolled projects see, Oregon planners said.

Wheeler wants more certainty.

“My preference continues to be a partnership, a joint effort with the state of Washington,” he said. “That’s a better approach. But if the Legislature determines to go ahead with the project, we need to make sure we have a way to collect the tolls over the 35-year life of the bonds.”

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