As we enter a New Year, it makes sense to revisit an old issue with a new approach.
Island residents will remember the particularly contentious debate that has occurred over tolls on Interstate 90 over the past few years. This issue was supposedly resolved in July 2015 when the governor signed into law a bill that raised gas taxes to pay for the State Route 520 project.
However, since then the effect has been an increase in traffic over the I-90 bridge. Perhaps you may have noticed this significant surge in traffic, particularly during rush hour, and the lack of a similar traffic load across the 520 bridge during the same hours.
Therefore, the tolling debate has not been resolved but merely substituted for another dilemma, increased traffic and congestion. Thus, I would like to propose a novel solution that should benefit all parties. This solution can help to fund state transportation projects or other areas facing budget shortfalls.
I suggest funding state parks or basic education, while equalizing the traffic load between the I-90 and SR 520 bridges. The idea is every car/license plate can travel for free between Mercer Island and Seattle or Mercer Island and Bellevue as many times as they want each day. However, if one travels between Bellevue and Seattle or vice versa within 24 hours they get charged the same toll as if they crossed using the SR 520 bridge.
The tracking and tolling can easily be accomplished using pre-existing cameras and most tolling software, though some new software may need to be written. This solution would allow non-Island residents to travel to Mercer Island to shop, visit restaurants, work, etc. and all Island residents to do the same off-Island. However, it would negate the financial incentives to using the I-90 bridge over SR 520 for those traveling from one side of the lake to another.
As a result, we would return to the same incentives that would exist if no tolls were charged. This should reduce congestion as traffic equalizes between the two bridges because people no longer have a financial incentive to use I-90.
Perhaps this is an idea the Mercer Island community and Washington State Department of Transportation might explore further, considering the potential upsides for all parties.