by Matt Rosenberg May 22nd, 2013
Proposed electronic tolling of I-90 just east of Seattle – to fill a $1.4 billion gap in building the western approach of a new bridge on SR 520 – is getting more complicated. There will now be a full Environmental Impact Statement, not just an Environmental Assessment. Regional pols are also pushing for a “system-wide” study of tolling in greater Seattle which they say should include looking at using vehicle tolling revenues to fund transit. And in the end it could be that instead of relying on I-90 user fees, tolling on a broader swath of SR 520 itself will help pay for the new bridge’s western approach.
Thanks to the signing Monday by Gov. Jay Inslee of the biennial state transpiration budget bill, there be a full EIS delving into how the region’s highway traffic flows inter-relate, and other topics. As well, 10 Eastside cities led by Mercer Island, plus Seattle and King County in a recent letter are pressing Puget Sound Regional Council and state officials to “convene a major task force” to review “a system-wide approach” to highway tolling and transportation system funding rather than the current “corridor by corridor” basis. That would include using revenues from tolling passenger vehicles to fund transit.
And to boot, the Mercer Island City Council Monday night approved legislation by a 6-0 vote another $125,000 in spending for lawyers and consultants to fight the current I-90 tolling scenario. Deputy City Manager Noel Treat says city officials will be meeting in early June in Washington, D.C. with Federal Highway Administration chief Victor Mendez to press their case that current federal law does not allow tolling an interstate, such as I-90, to pay for a state highway project, such as the unfunded western approach to the new SR 520 bridge.
Continuing its full-court press, Mercer Island today sent a letter to Washington State DOT Secretary Lynn Peterson seeking to ensure there would be a new round of public comments on envisioned I-90 tolling, now that an EIS will be required. The letter also urges WSDOT to “harmonize” the EIS with the proposed “system tolling” probe so that the scope of the EIS is not limited to just I-90 and SR 520. Treat said, “We understand King County and the PSRC are talking to the Governor’s office about how to integrate” that requested analysis with the EIS.
The 1960s-vintage SR 520 floating bridge – which connects Seattle to key Eastside job centers such as Bellevue, Kirkland and Redmond – is classified by the state as highly vulnerable to a disaster in the event of a major storm with winds greater than 70 miles per hour, or an earthquake. Its total replacement cost is projected at $4.1 billion and much of that is covered by an array of funding sources including electronic tolls put in place on the bridge itself, but not on the un-funded western approach which bisects Seattle’s sylvan Montlake neighborhood and the University of Washington’s main campus.
Treat says it’s too early to say what the best approach to the $1.4 billion funding challenge is, but several options are politically dicey. They include a three-cents-per-gallon hike in the state gas tax remarked for 520; a local option hike in the motor vehicle excise tax, and even the years-distant vehicle miles traveled tax, something under study by a special state task force.
Opposition to the state’s renewed plans for tolling of the I-90 corridor began to build on Mercer Island in late 2012, as word spread of early 2013 public meetings WSDOT was planning for the Environmental Assessment process. The city has contracted with the Seattle law firm K&L Gates and other consultants to press its case.
Treat says the council is not “anti-tax, anti-funding” on regional surface transpiration, and gets that there are major needs. But he says the problem requires a systems approach including a good hard look at whether tolls from one facility should be used to fund work on another. If so, he says, there needs to be a clear road map of how it will all work, something that can be clarified through the new EIS and the envisioned regional study.
The April 22 letter to the PSC and WSDOT Sec. Peterson urging the “system-wide” tolling analysis, is signed by King County Executive Dow Constantine, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn and the mayors of Bellevue, Clyde Hill, Hunts Point, Kenmore, Lake Forest Park, Mercer Island, Newcastle, Redmond, Renton and Yarrow Point.
Assistant WSDOT Secretary Craig Stone, of WSDOT’s Toll Division, said that “having leadership in the region step up” and make more clear their interest in a coordinated regional approach to tolling is a positive step. “It’s a healthy conversation that needs to happen,” he added. As for Mercer Island’s concern about using I-90 tolls to pay for SR 520, he said the region has to figure out if its major highways really are a system or not. In the Bay Area, he noted, toll revenues from seven different bridges are used jointly because the facilities are seen as a system.
Tolling the western approach of SR 520 to pay for its construction does represent “a reasonable perspective,” Stone said. There are three distinct segments of SR 520 that theoretically could be tolled, if the state with regional backing chooses to do so, Stone said: the western approach, the currently-tolled bridge; and the segment from the eastern landing of the bridge, going further east to I-405.
The draft EIS on I-90 tolling should be completed by as early as mid-2014, Stone said. It will be followed by public hearings, then the issuance of a final EIS, and by as soon as mid-2015, the final record of decision.
A wild card in funding the $1.4 billion SR 520 western approach is Seattle community concerns about environmental mitigation including lids, parks and more, which could still result in added costs and even litigation against the state.