by Matt Rosenberg February 24th, 2013
Admitting local state legislators have already warned their colleagues will likely approve electronic tolling on Interstate 90, Mercer Island City officials are still poised Monday night to approve a work plan to battle the move.
Council bill 4809 would OK an initial appropriation of $150,000 from the city’s $2.34 million general contingency fund to hire experts on the economic and traffic impacts to the well-off city of planned state tolling on I-90, plus federal and state lobbyists and a communications and government affairs consultant to fight the plan. Mercer Island has already engaged the high-powered Seattle law firm of K&L Gates, which recently completed a letter to the the Washington State Department of Transportation outlining what should be examined, and how, in the planned Environmental Assessment, or EA, on I-90 tolling.
WSDOT says it plans to toll I-90 from I-5 in Seattle across Lake Washington and past Mercer Island to I-405 in Bellevue to help fill a $1.4 billion funding gap for the new SR 520 bridge across the lake – which is needed for safety reasons in case of a severe storm or earthquake. The agency also says tolling I-90 will help tame congestion which has grown since tolling began last year on 520. All lanes of I-90 would be tolled on the designated stretch according to Eastside officials. Current tolls on the SR 520 bridge are as a high as $3.59 for “GoodToGo” account-holders, but lower at off-peak hours. Transit and van pools are exempt.
Initial public meetings were held last month and comments taken in person and in writing on the coming EA. WSDOT will seek more comments in November when the EA is released, and says state legislative approval of I-90 tolling could come next year, with implementation as soon as 2015.
Meanwhile locals are seeing red. The city’s draft work plan states I-90 tolls would “have a significant financial impact on al those who live, work, visit, attend schools or own businesses on Mercer Island.” Tolling I-90 to pay for the new bridge on SR 520 is “unprecedented” and “based on a faulty assumption that I-90 and SR 520 form a single transportation corridor, which is entirely incorrect” with respect to Mercer Islanders and other daily commuters who cross Lake Washington on one of the two bridges. The draft work plan adds that motorists going to and from the island could end up paying one-fifth or more of the $1.4 billion SR 520 funding shortfall.
If the council at its Monday night meeting approves the initial work plan and the related $150,000 appropriation clearing the way for the city to hire the planned slew of consultants, Mercer Island would begin to ramp up its coordinated strategy opposing I-90 tolling. (UPDATE: The council passed an amended version of the work plan at its March 4 meeting.)
Along with lobbying the state and federal government, lawyering up, and helping to coordinate citizen input and messaging, the city would push for a more detailed Environmental Impact Statement rather than the planned EA. The city would also dig into how to quantify the economic impact and check WSDOT’s numbers; while liaising with officials of other affected cities, King County and the Port of Seattle, and developing tolling alternatives to limit financial impact on local residents and workers.
One thrust of the federal lobbying effort would be to explore be whether the state can even toll an Interstate, but many experts say old prohibitions against that are beginning to dissipate and major roadblocks are quite unlikely.
At $146,476, Mercer Island’s median family income is the highest of any city in the state, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Family Survey, the Mercer Island Reporter noted last fall. However the daytime population of the city of 22,000-plus includes many workers of different income levels employed in retail, office jobs, and by the school district and city. And Mercer Island is not alone among Eastside cities in wondering whether tolling I-90 to pay for the SR 520 funding gap might not be unfair.
As Public Data Ferret reported in December, Bellevue City Council Member Claudia Balducci told top WSDOT officials at a public meeting: “…Why not toll a bunch of roads to pay for 520,” such as I-5, I-405 and SR 522. “If tolling is the future, (if) it’s how we’re going to start paying for the significant road investments that are needed…and maintenance and operations…then we have to start urging the legislature to…move to a new funding structure in a wholesale way instead of…piecemeal.”
Balducci also sits on a special committee advising WSDOT on planned tolling of the new deep-bored waterfront tunnel in downtown Seattle on SR 99. In that capacity, she and former Port of Seattle CEO Maud Daudon recently suggested in writing that expected diversion of toll-avoiding SR 99 tunnel motorists onto I-5 suggested the need for a more well-thought-out “systems” approach to tolling across the region’s major highways, including I-5. Currently, the SR 520 bridge, a portion of SR 167 and the Tacoma Narrows Bridge are tolled electronically, with I-405 and likely I-90 to be added to that list in the next several years.
Although electronic tolling continues to gain favor among state lawmakers and regional officials in Puget Sound to help fund added surface transportation capacity, maintenance and transit; it is not expected to provide a “silver bullet” solution to funding pressures. This was underscored by a recent state study which found that only about $65 million of the $1.5 billion cost of completing SR 167 could be covered by tolling.
Lawmakers are working on a near-term transportation funding package that would begin to nibble away at statewide needs estimated by a gubernatorial task force last year at $50 billion in the next decade, or $21 billion in the lowered-expectations scenario.