Just as the Bush administration has dangled a $138 million carrot of federal funds for Seattle area transportation projects if Washington starts tolling in the Highway 520 corridor, the feds have now moved another Northwest project to the front burner – one that will undoubtedly involve road tolling. The Oregonian reports: U.S. officials have named the Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River one of the nation's top transportation priorities, promising to clear the federal bureaucracy to help a $2 billion to $6 billion reconstruction move forward at full speed. The U.S. Department of Transportation has promised to help find money and furnish permits for the I-5 bridge – it connects Portland with Vancouver – immediately pledging $15 million in planning money. The bridge project was part of a West Coast-wide plea for congestion relief. Oregon, Washington and California had joined to ask the federal government to make Interstate 5 a national priority. Thirty-eight traffic-clotted regions nationally competed to be named Corridors of the Future, and Interstate 5 through Oregon, Washington and California was one of six that made it, the Transportation Department announced late Monday. One reason the massive, car-centric Washington-Oregon project jumped to the head of the class is the willingness of local officials to consider congestion pricing schemes, which is the string-de-jour for federal assistance: Ian Grossman, a spokesman for the Federal Highway Administration, said the potential use of tolls, and the possibility of variable charges, helped make the Columbia River Crossing stand out. Federal officials were especially interested that Oregon and Washington are willing to consider congestion pricing – the practice of tolling a roadway and imposing higher tolls during peak traffic hours, the higher prices intended to dissuade use at certain times of day. "It's the innovative financing that we believe will have a real impact on relieving congestion," Grossman said. According to The Oregonian, most Northwest congressional members pleaded for the designation from the feds, with one rather notable exception from Oregon: U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, an influential transportation policymaker as chairman of the House subcommittee on highways and transit, was the only member of the Oregon delegation who did not sign on. DeFazio, an outspoken critic of the Bush administrations encouragement of highway tolls, was not available for comment Tuesday. That's quite an exception, given DeFazio's committee chairmanship. DeFazio is also an outspoken critic of toll road privatization, another trend pushed by current and former Bush administration officials. The federal funds offered aren't enough to actually implement congestion pricing programs. Indeed, a fine-print analysis of a $354 million grant awarded New York City this summer, at the same time as the Seattle grant, reveals that only a tiny portion (about $10 million) is earmarked for that purpose, hardly enough to get started on the surveillance-heavy, London-style congestion pricing system that Mayor Michael Bloomberg has envisioned. However, the terms of the grant could be met by adding high tolls to the city's free East River bridges, according to Kenneth Orski who publishes Innovation Briefs, a pro-tolling transportation newsletter. The federal funding strategy, as in the Columbia River case, appears to be less about instituting full-fledged congestion pricing than in establishing it as a precedent for the future. As federal tax dollars for transportation become more scarce, the feds want to find ways of hitting local taxpayers harder without raising taxes. Pay-as-you go driving is one way to do this. This user-fee approach to funding transportation represents an enormous sea-change in how transportation is funded in this country. It is especially significant in the West, where the right to a freewheeling lifestyle has been taken for granted. Instead of being implemented wholesale, however, it will be done incrementally, with a toll here and a toll there, from the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge to the Evergreen Point Bridge across Lake Washington to the Columbia crossing. Pretty soon we'll all be like the salmon, finding our way home blocked, not by dams but by toll booths. I'm sure Woody Guthrie could have made a song out of that.