Tolling federally funded highways like Interstate 5 is illegal, except when it’s not. So could tolls be used to pay part of the cost of replacing the I-5 bridge connecting Washington and Oregon?
Under federal law, 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 “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 allows for tolling that pays for the construction of new highways, as well as the reconstruction or replacement of bridges, tunnels or roads. The second allows for tolling of vehicles using high-occupancy vehicle lanes.
Then there are tolling projects that the federal government has authorized. Agencies charging the tolls are required to have an agreement with the Federal Highway Administration.
Washington currently has five tolled roads, bridges and tunnels: the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, the Highway 520 floating bridge, the Highway 99 tunnel, the Interstate 405 Express Toll Lanes and the Highway 167 High Occupancy Toll Lanes. All five are in the Puget Sound 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 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.
The system is expected to be interoperable with other tolls in Western states, including Washington, Oregon, California, Utah and Colorado.