In front of a packed house Monday evening, the Mercer Island City Council and residents of the Island began what will be a long discussion on tolling of Interstate 90.
Beginning later this month, the Washington State Department of Transportation will start taking public comment on the an Environment Assessment of I-90 which includes the effects of tolling the bridge.
Craig Stone, the Toll Division director for WSDOT, presented at Monday's City Council meeting, explaining some of the background on the project.
"The key here is we're at the beginning of a process that will be include a very extended public outreach," said Stone. "Then I think a major policy decision will have to be made."
After a year of tolling on State Route 520 and seeing how traffic patterns and thus revenue have changed, the state will need to find approximately $1.404 billion to finish the SR 520 bridge construction. A majority of the project has been funded by state and federal dollars, as well as grants and money coming from the tolls on SR-520, but the portion of the bridge on the western side of Lake Washington and the I-5 to Montlake area is unfunded, equaling around $1.4 billion.
Stone outlined that since tolling on SR-520 has gone into place, traffic on I-90 has increased 11 percent, while traffic on SR-520 has dropped approximately 33 percent. Traffic along other routes around Lake Washington, such as SR-522, have also increased.
"The environmental assessment will provide information to make sure everything has been considered and is part of the information gathering process," said Stone. "We really want to make sure people understand what all the options are."
The discussion to toll I-90 is two fold. The tolls would help stabilize traffic patterns, returning cars to SR-520, as well as I-90, while also generating funds needed to pay for the remaining portion of SR-520 construction.
Stone said the general outline is to have a transportation analysis complete in June 2013, followed by a public hearing sometime in November 2013, with findings possibly published in early 2014. Should the state legislature decide to implement tolls on the bridge or bridges across Mercer Island it would likely take another year of construction and preparation to get things up and running, setting the earliest date for tolls on I-90 in early 2015.
"We realize this is a major decision," said Stone.
State Representative Judy Clibborn, herself a Mercer Island resident and chair of the House Transportation Committee said it has been a difficult topic.
"We can't raise enough statewide dollars to pay for big projects in the Puget Sound," she told the Council Monday. "We have to come up with ways to pay for it. This completes the regional package and we can't raise enough on tolls solely from SR-520. Interestingly, we don't have any more federal or state dollars, but we've had better financing and have saved half a billion dollars, which means we're only looking at $1.4 billion left."
Clibborn said anyone driving now on I-405 and I-90 in the evening knows what a mess it is, but that tolling could be a way to help alleviate and fix some of those issues.
"Traffic is deeply congested and if we're going to do tolling, it should invest money into that interchange so it's not as blocked," she said. "Those are the kinds of things I've looked at, but even though we've talked about it for four or five years, it hasn't been part of the public conversation yet."
She added it will continue to be necessary to work with Sound Transit and WSDOT to ensure the timing is correct on all projects, especially with the work to add light rail to the middle of the I-90 bridge.
State Senator Steve Litzow, another long time Mercer Island resident, said not only is the state working to pay for current projects, but also working through a back log of projects which are required to keep roads in decent shape.
"We're playing catch up in keeping the transportation infrastructure up to date," said Litzow. "We've got to figure out how tolling I-90 works and how it works for Mercer Island specifically."
State Representative Marcie Maxwell was also in attendance at the meeting and said though she doesn't live on the Island, she understands how difficult the commute can be for anyone trying to get from Mercer Island to Renton on a daily basis. She added that transportation is a vital tool for businesses and residents.
Many Mercer Island residents attended the meeting and shared their thoughts during public comment, with many saying how tolls would not only effect property values on the Island, but would hurt businesses, because many employees don't live here.
Stowe Sprague said she and her husband roughly charted how many off Island trips they make a week, hitting roughly 23 between going to work and children's activities, as well as shopping, with 20 of those trips to the Bellevue area.
"Conservatively estimating a toll of $4 round trip, that would be $92 a week and roughly $5,000 a year," she said. "If everyone calculated for their family it would be mind blowing. That's more than I pay in school levies, which I gladly do, and I have used the bridge to Seattle twice (in recent years), so we would be paying for a bridge we never use. However, I think tolling is inevitable and so I would like to concentrate my energy on figuring out how to alleviate this for Mercer Island, whether that means a cap for residents or something else."
Another resident said he was concerned the not only tolling, but the increased tracking which is required to implement the tolls. He said not only would he be playing $6,000 to $7,000 a year just to leave the Island, but tolling stickers would also keep track of all Island residents off Island moves, losing an element of freedom.
The state Legislature has authorized tolling in six places throughout the state. Three are currently collecting tolls on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, the 167 HOT lanes and SR-520. Three more places have been authorized for tolls, but currently not in place – the 405 express lanes, crossing the Columbia River and the SR-99 tunnel in downtown Seattle. The places the state is studying tolling right now include: I-90, the 509 extension to SeaTac airport and the 167 extension to the Port of Tacoma.
Learn more on the WSDOT website.
Mercer Island public meeting:
On Tuesday, Jan. 29, from 4 to 7 p.m. at the Mercer Island Community and Event Center, the first public meeting on the tolling of Interstate 90 will be held.