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Tolls For Southbound Traffic Only?

Existing corridor ruled best option for new Columbia River bridge

While construction of a new Columbia River bridge linking Bingen-White Salmon and Hood River is at least 10 years away, there has been some recent progress in the planning phase.

Last week, the Bridge Advisory Committee met in Hood River and reached a decision on where a potential new bridge would be located. The verdict: If and when built, the bridge ought to go in the same basic corridor as it is in now.

Proposals call for the south end of the bridge to be basically where it is now, with a bit more leeway on where the north end would land.

On the Washington end of the bridge, one option would connect the bridge to the Dock Grade Road intersection, while the other two possibilities would come in within about 200 feet on either side of where the existing bridge meets the ground.

There are three sub-options within the existing corridor:

West Connection to Dock Grade: Directly adjacent to the west side of the existing bridge until a point north of the shipping channel, where it would shift west to avoid the in-lieu fishing site on the Washington side. The grade of SR 14 would need to be raised, and Dock Grade would need to be realigned at the intersection for safety reasons.

West Alignment: Directly adjacent to the west side of the existing bridge until a point north of the shipping channel, where it would shift west to avoid the in-lieu fishing site on the Washington side.

East Alignment: Directly adjacent to the east side of the existing bridge.

In all three scenarios, the SR 14 intersection at Dock Grade would be signalized and widened to accommodate turn lanes.

Dale Robins, project manager for the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council, pointed out that construction of a new bridge is not going to start anytime soon.

"A new bridge is not going to happen in the next 10 years, but in the 10-20 year window, something has to done," Robins said.

Bingen Mayor Brian Prigel, a member of the advisory committee on the project, said the process had winnowed the possibilities down to two general possibilities.

"We've essentially eliminated all options except building in the existing corridor, or not building a new bridge at all," Prigel explained.

Prigel added that a preliminary economic study offered a fairly reliable price tag for a bridge.

"Out of all this, it was determined that the cost for a new bridge is between $110 million and $130 million," he said.

Robins said about half of the cost needed to come through local revenue to make the project feasible. That works out to be roughly $65 million.

One way to get the revenue would be to put an immediate surcharge on all bridge users via an added toll.

"For example, an additional 25 cents added to the current 75-cent toll would generate $1.5 million per year," said Robins. "That fund could not be touched for anything but bridge replacement."

Another option is to increase area property taxes to help meet costs.

"There could be a new property tax in the local area -- Klickitat County and Hood River County, and perhaps portions of Skamania County," Robins explained. "These are the types of final decisions to be made in the next tier of the study."

Robins added that the Regional Transportation Council (RTC) has no authority to make decisions that would impact taxes.

"That would require the County Commissioners, or city councils, to take those types of actions," he said.

Robins noted that the possibility remains that state transportation officials could kill the project.

"What happens now is, we have the Oregon and Washington Department of Transportation regional administrators meeting on June 4 to recommend whether to proceed or to conclude the study," Robins said. "I hope they continue on. What they will base the decision on is a financial feasibility study. I can't predict how they'll think. There is a chance they will end the project."

"We hope to move forward with `Tier 3,' which starts the Environmental Impact Study," Prigel said. "The concern is, the Washington Department of Transportation may pull the plug."

Other items under discussion in relation to the bridge project include collecting the bridge toll for vehicles going southbound only. That could help to eliminate congestion from northbound traffic coming off Interstate 84 in Hood River, which sometimes backs up onto the highway due to delays sparked by collection of tolls for vehicles headed into Washington.

"It's congested, and it doesn't work very well there," Robins said. "This plan would double the toll [to $1.50], but you'd only pay it going one way [into Oregon]."

Another problem: Motorists waiting at the bottom of the exit ramp coming off eastbound I-84 have difficulty seeing oncoming traffic because the abutments of the highway overpass sharply reduce the sight lines. Resolving that by putting a traffic light where the stop sign is now is one option being considered.

Where northbound bridge traffic spills out onto Washington's State Route 14 also creates difficulty: "Eventually, this intersection will experience conditions that could result in higher accident rates as left-turning vehicle drivers become impatient with longer wait times and begin to attempt turns into unsafe gaps in traffic," read an excerpt from an RTC document related to proposed "mid-term improvements."

The proposed solution for the SR 14 intersection calls for adding a traffic signal at the intersection. Cost for that is estimated at approximately $160,000.

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