Hundreds of Islanders packed into the Mercer Island Community and Event Center last evening to hear about the possibility of tolling the I-90 corridor from Seattle to Issaquah. Islanders were joined by legions of local press, business people, local politicians and concerned residents who mostly wanted to know how tolling can even be considered for people whose only way on and off the Island is the interstate.
At issue is how to pay for a $1.4 billion dollar shortfall in funding needed to complete the SR-520 rebuilding effort, said assistant director Craig Stone of WSDOT. At stake to Islanders is not only their single route on and off the Island, but their way of life.
The meeting had been set up to be an open house. Large display boards were posted around the room with a WSDOT employee stationed nearby to answer questions. There were flyers and information brochures around the room and tables set up for writing comments. But the agency knew that Islanders needed more, said WSDOT’s Colleen Gant. “We doubled the staff we usually bring to these meetings from 10 to 20.”
Just after 4 p.m., the crush of people spilled from the Mercer Room into the MICEC lobby and police officials warned WSDOT that the room was over capacity. For nearly an hour, people could only enter the room if someone left.
Islanders wanted to hear directly from Stone, who was only set to speak for 10 minutes or so to introduce the process at 4:30, 5:30 and 6:30 without taking questions. The idea was to encourage interaction between WSDOT planners and the public. But, Stone said that he quickly realized that the interaction was necessary. Stone ended up taking questions for 45 minutes from the crowd at 4:30. Another Q&A session followed the 5:30 discussion.
Along with the WSDOT presentation, an Island group, 'No Toll On I-90,' was set up outside the Mercer Room in the lobby. Business there was brisk. Organizers handed out information and had petitions for people to sign. The group is a nonprofit L-6 organization that is registered with the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission.
The group, first formed in 2008 to oppose tolling on SR-520, has raised money and paid for the 'No Tolling I-90' signs scattered across the Island. Island resident Eva Zemplenyi said that tolling represents “just another tax,” and that having to pay tolls will be “harmful in many ways to the Island.”
Speaking to the group, Stone explained that the task was assigned to the agency by the state Legislature. It is to study the environmental effects of tolling in the corridor and the region. They will study and document the impacts on individuals, business and traffic. He said they will be studying traffic on a regional basis within the ‘box’ formed by SR-520 and I-90 from Seattle to Issaquah looking at effects on Bellevue, and from Bothell to Renton.
Stone emphasized that it is the state Legislature that will have the final decision on tolling, not WSDOT, and that the Federal Highway Administration must also sign off. There are many layers to getthrough, he noted, yet there is already a good deal of precedence regarding employing tolling.
Stone said twice that in his many years at the agency, this is the "biggest policy decision that he has ever seen or been involved with.”
The majority of attendees were upset that tolling was even to be considered for Island residents and employees who come to work here. Many demanded to know if such a proposal was legal, given both state and federal laws. Others questioned the legality of tolling the federal corridor to pay for a state highway. Many asked if tolling the corridor was already a “done deal.”
Dan Goldman, who moved with his family to the Island just a couple of years ago, is also opposed to tolling and the effect it would have on his life here. Yet, he told a reporter that as a former New Yorker, tolling is a part of life in the Northeast.
Others asked if other sources of funding for SR-520 had been studied before looking at tolling. Islander Liz Callahan asked Stone if the transportation planners had considered a “portfolio of fundingoptions” to help pay for 520.
“Is tolling the only way being considered?” she asked.
She was not satisfied at the answer she received, when Stone again said that the Legislature would take the lead on identifying sources. She felt the state should look again at airport fees, the King CountyConvention Center and even the Port of Seattle among other sources.
“You don’t just say that there is just one solution — tolling,” she said.
More than just Islanders are concerned about how tolling will affect their communities. Kenmore City Manager Rob Karlinsey came to bring a resolution signed by the city council in his city requesting mitigation resources from the state of Washington to blunt the impacts of tolling in their community. Kenmore also wants the impact of I-90 tolling on their community to be formally studied along with the cities along the two highways. This is not just about 520 and I-90, he said. There are four corridors to be considered, he said.
“We have seen at least a 10 percent increase in traffic on SR-522 (Bothell Way) since 520 tolling began," Karlinsey said. "Traffic is increasing. People are parking on our streets to take transit, and we have a fragile bridge on that route to worry about.”
“We know it is a big issue for everyone," Stone said. “But it also raises the question, of how to pay for the highway system and how do we maintain it. We need the $1.4 billion to complete the 520 project, we need to balance and manage traffic within the region.”
Islanders such as Mary Dijulio, who owns Western Van and Storage with her husband, will also be affected if tolls are implemented. She said they are already paying more when doing business in other cities. But now with tolling, it could be too much.
Two additional tolling open houses are scheduled in Bellevue and Seattle.