Pay an extra 25 cents to cross the Hood River Toll Bridge? According to Bingen Mayor Brian Prigel, that might be the cost of finally getting a new span across the Columbia River in place.
At last week's meeting of the Bingen City Council, Mayor Prigel said he planned to send a letter to a wide array of local governmental jurisdictions -- including the Klickitat County Commissioners, Skamania County Commissioners, area community councils, officials of Hood River County, and the cities of White Salmon and Hood River -- requesting that they support a toll increase.
The goal is to get an interlocal agreement among several jurisdictions to raise the bridge toll to $1, up from its current 75 cents. The additional 25 cents would go to an escrow account set aside to help pay for a new bridge.
The account would not be managed by the Port of Hood River, which owns the existing bridge.
Prigel, who plans to send the letters out this week, said the local matching fund is a necessary next step.
"This step is very important to continue the momentum of the bridge project," Prigel said. "If we don't get this, the chances of getting a new bridge are slim to none. If we don't demonstrate local support, we won't get other funding."
Prigel is taking the lead on the move because he represents the Bingen-White Salmon community on the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council (RTC). The RTC has been guiding the planning for a new bridge across the Columbia River.
Prigel pointed out that the matching source doesn't have to be an additional bridge toll, but he believes that's the most logical way to build a local matching fund for the project.
"Property taxes or a levy are other options," Prigel said. "But I don't think anyone wants those sources to be used for a bridge fund."
Prigel estimated that the extra 25 cents could bring in nearly $1 million a year for a new bridge, based on current traffic counts.
"It adds up pretty quick," Prigel said.
"It is essential we have a local buy-in for matching funds," explained Klickitat County Commissioner Don Struck. "Congress certainly looks a lot more favorably on projects if there is a local match."
Struck added that he realized raising the bridge toll would not be a popular move.
"I'm sure people aren't going to like it very well, but obviously there is a need for a long-term plan for that bridge," he said. "I'm confident everybody will support that. I think the Port will too. It's politically sensitive for them, but they don't want to have to replace that bridge. There is no way a small port district could afford to replace the bridge."
With the bridge getting closer to the end of its useful lifespan, Prigel suggested it could soon be turning from a "cash cow" for the Port to a big liability.
"What I want to do is get all the agencies and entities together before we go to the Port of Hood River," Prigel explained.
"Some people in the Port already are in agreement that the bridge needs to be replaced, but not the ones who sign the contract," said Bingen City Council member Randy Anderson.
Prigel added that increasing the toll to $1 now would help with the "rate shock" of taking the toll to $2 -- each way -- which is the expected toll to cover costs once the bridge is built. That money would go to pay off the construction bonds for the bridge. However, the toll would be removed once the bridge is paid for.
"If that bridge stays in place, it's likely we'll be paying a $2 toll eventually anyway," noted Bingen City Clerk Jan Brending.
Current estimates suggest that a $2 toll would eventually pay for about half the cost of the bridge over a period of 20 years. The rest of the construction money would come from various grants.
The new bridge would not be owned by the Port of Hood River. Rather, either the Oregon Department of Transportation or the Washington Department of Transportation would own and maintain the new bridge. It was unclear as to which state would ultimately become the owner of the proposed new span.
Prigel said he hopes to get a response to his letter within about 30 days. Then he plans to get the proposal on the agenda of a Port Commission meeting in late September or early October.
"We need to convince them it's in the best long-term interest of the public, as well as the long-term interest of the Port of Hood River, to set up this fund," Prigel said.
Commissioner Struck said several people met with U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings regarding the bridge earlier this month.
Hastings is pushing for approval of $800,000 in a pending federal highway bill that would go toward the bridge. Specifically, the money would be used to complete the Environmental Impact Statement and to continue design work on the project.
Hastings came to Bingen on Aug. 11 and met with Dianne Sherwood, executive director of the Port of Klickitat, and Dale Robins of the RTC, as well as with Commissioner Struck and Mayor Prigel.
Struck said the funding bill should be acted on within the next 60 days, and he was hopeful about the outcome.
"We're optimistic," Struck said.