Islanders gathered once again to hear from Washington State Department of Transportation officials about tolling I-90 to pay for the SR-520 bridge and corridor. About 100 people came to the Feb. 7 Chamber of Commerce membership luncheon to hear from the WSDOT’s John White, the agency’s director of tolled corridor development.
White sought to explain to Islanders why tolling is needed on I-90, but also to reassure them that WSDOT wants to know what Islanders have to say.
He announced that a series of surveys will be conducted to measure the impacts of tolling on the community. The first will be a survey that will track Islanders’ use of I-90 via license plates. Next will be a survey mailed to Island residents concerning their travel, and finally a survey of businesses that will include how customers view tolls and how it would affect their travel or purchasing decisions.
White said that 1,600 comments had been received to date about the tolling proposal. He encouraged Islanders to send in their views.
The first slide in his presentation set the tone of the discussion. It stated that I-90 is part of the cross-Lake Washington corridor. The corridor is made up of both I-90 and SR-520.
The need for tolling is twofold, he said. First, it is essential to complete the funding needed to rebuild SR-520 and to manage traffic within the corridor — on both SR-520 and I-90.
Tolling SR-520 alone is not enough to pay for the SR-520 rebuild. The project is $1.4 billion short of what is needed to complete the project (which could include, at some point, tearing down the old ‘ramps to nowhere’ at the western end of the bridge just east of the Montlake interchange).
Tolling is also needed to manage traffic on both highways, WSDOT officials say. It will ease congestion and improve flow at peak periods on both highways, White explained.
Islanders at the meeting included business owners and employers who are concerned about both their bottom line and their employees.
Alan Hovsepian, an Island realtor whose wife owns Au Courant salon in the Town Center, asked about what was available from the gas tax and if tolling of I-90 would pay for other road projects in the state.
White said that all but approximately 8 cents of the 37 cents now collected through the tax is already spoken for.
“The needs far outweigh the resources,” he said.
Hovsepian and others wanted to know how well the plan for paying for SR-520 had been thought out, given problems with construction so far. Why, they asked, was the estimate for tolling revenue on SR-520 so far off? Why isn’t the stretch of SR-520 from I-5 to the Montlake interchange tolled? And just how well does WSDOT design and manage its facilities in general?
As for the possibility that I-90 tolling might be continued after SR-520 is completed to be used for any other projects, White could not say. He said that the Legislature is in a predicament without tolling as a tool to pay for new roads as well as to maintaining the existing ones.
“It is up to the Legislature to decide if the proceeds from the corridor remain in the corridor,” he said.
Mercer Island Schools Superintendent Gary Plano noted that the school district is the Island’s largest employer and has some 300 employees who live off Island said there would be a huge impact on the school district if its staff faced tolling when commuting here.
Tolling of I-90 is in its early stages, White said. There are many steps that need to be taken before tolling would begin. Along with the environmental assessment that is underway, the state Legislature will need to approve those studies and toll design. Then the federal authorities would need to agree to the plan and finally, the Washington State Transportation Commission would set the toll rates.
Send in your comments to WSDOT
To comment electronically on the tolling issue, go to www.wsdot.wa.gov/Tolling/I90/OnlineScoping to learn more about the process and how to send in your comments.
Comments may also be mailed to: Angela Angove, 999 Third Avenue, Suite 2200, Seattle, WA 98104.