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City of Mercer Island spending to fight tolls to grow

In its effort to fight tolls on Interstate 90, the City of Mercer Island has spend about $125,000 to date out of a budget approved for the work of $150,000.

From Olympia to Virginia to Washington, D.C., the city has taken its fight across the country.

The work of legal counsel and lobbyists hired by the city are part of a two-pronged effort to look at both the state and federal roles in determining both the legality and the impact of tolling as a way to fund the rebuild of State Route 520.

Within those realms, the city has hired help to look at the following areas that might determine if, first, tolls are illegal, and next, if there are other sources of funds to pay for the SR-520 bridge.

First, the city is concerned that decision makers may opt for a more abbreviated approach to assessing the impact of tolling by approving the production of an environmental assessment rather than a full environmental impact statement. By law, an EIS implies that the agency in charge fully studies and documents the social, environmental and economic impact of imposing tolls.

In addition, the city has hired lobbyists to work within the state Legislature to look for other funding sources for the bridge rather than tolling.

Next, the city wants to be part of the decision about the legality of tolling a federal highway to pay for a state highway.

As a part of that effort, the city has hired legal strategists to follow lawsuits brought against tolling in Portsmouth, Va., in a similar situation.

Finally, if the state does decide to do a full EIS, the city will likely hire experts to follow the work. The Washington State Department of Transportation will be the lead agency on the report.

“If and when an EIS is a go,” Treat said, “we will want to monitor the work being done on the economic impact, traffic changes and other effects from tolling.”

In that case, a traffic consultant and an economic impact expert will be hired, he said. A traffic engineer will cost $25,000.

According to City Finance Director Chip Corder, additional funds for the effort may be available from savings in last year’s budget. He will ask the Council if they wish to make those funds available at the City Council meeting on Monday night after Reporter deadline.

Both Corder and Assistant City Manager Noel Treat are uncertain about the amount of money it will take to fully monitor or influence the outcome regarding tolling I-90. Yet both acknowledge that certain actions will require hiring additional expertise.

What is actually planned or spent is up to the City Council, they said.

It is difficult to say at this point how much the city might spend in its effort to fight and/or mitigate the effects of tolling I-90.

“If the city decides to litigate at both the state and federal levels, the cost could run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he said.

For more, go to www.mercergov.org.

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