Embrace tolls and let us all breathe easier

Now that Oregon lawmakers have set the wheels in motion to fight traffic congestion between Portland and Vancouver with toll roads, certain vocal critics have gone on the warpath, admonishing Oregon for unfairly taxing Washington commuters who — they contend — already pay their fair share by contributing to Oregon’s income tax structure.

To hear these folks tell it, the only solution to the commuter nightmare that clogs Interstate 5 and Interstate 205 between Vancouver and Portland every day is building a new bridge across the Columbia River.

A third bridge would certainly help keep traffic moving. For a while, anyway. But then, much like what happened in east Vancouver a few years after the I-205 crossing went up, that third bridge would make this end of Clark County more attractive to Portland and Gresham area workers, eventually adding even more cars to our current traffic headache.

There is a reason Portland planners have tried so hard to avoid the type of sprawl found in other cities like Los Angeles, Atlanta and Phoenix — with sprawl comes congestion and with congestion comes increased air pollution, costly public health problems like asthma and low birth weights and an increasingly frustrated community of people who spend more and more of their valuable time just trying to get home to their families.

What’s hardly ever mentioned when politicians and critics discuss Oregon’s desire to implement a tolling plan is that toll roads are a proven balm for traffic jams and stressed-out commuters.

Traffic experts estimate that as many as 25 percent of rush-hour traffic consists of people going on non-work related trips that could wait. Tolls get those drivers off the roads during the most crowded times. They also prompt people into carpooling and taking public transportation. Even if you must drive and can’t afford the toll, Oregon will likely keep “free lanes” that move just as slow as today’s traffic.

What’s more, toll roads help keep our air, as well as our most vulnerable residents, healthy.

A Johns Hopkins research paper published earlier this year found that congestion pricing on roads within central Stockholm “reduced ambient air pollution by 5 to 10 percent” and linked the reduction to “a significant decrease in the rate of acute asthma attacks among young children.”

Likewise, a 2009 Princeton University study of electronic tolling booths used on highways in Pennsylvania and New Jersey found that the reduction of stop-and-go traffic had “resulted in a significant reduction in low birth weight and premature births” for babies born to families living within 1.2 miles of the highway.

Critics always point to dollars lost to the tolls, but what of the dollars lost sitting in traffic? A 2010 study on traffic congestion published in the Journal of Environmental Health found that while the estimated cost of congestion in terms of wasted fuel and lost time was about $60 billion per year, the added cost of mortality related to air pollution in the congested areas came to an additional $31 billion annually.

Most of the people who have chosen to make Clark County their home despite working in Oregon have done so for livability issues — that is, most commuters simply chose larger lots, rural landscapes, good schools and lower property taxes over having less of a commute time. We know that the majority of Washington-to-Oregon commuters are not overly worried about making ends meet — according to the Oregon Center for Public Policy, in 2008, of the 60,000 people living in Clark and Skamania counties and commuting to Oregon jobs, more than half earned more than $40,000 a year (compared to 42 percent of the entire Portland-Vancouver metro workforce at that time).

Toll roads have proven effective at reducing rush-hour traffic congestion, improving air pollution and helping create healthier communities. Think about those benefits the next time you hear a local politician pushing for a third bridge or railing against Oregon’s toll plan and ask yourself what’s more important: quality of life for everyone — or a few more dollars in your own pocket each day.

We hope that, when asked — possibly at the ballot — Camas-Washougal residents will put the needs of the environment and community over the needs of the individual, embrace toll roads and reject the push to build more bridges and add more cars to this area’s already too-congested highway system.