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Few attend WSDOT meeting on tolls

At a sparsely attended forum to gather input from Eastside residents about a legislative proposal to toll the Interstate 90 bridge at the cross-lake Washington corridor, many were upset that they may end up footing the bill to complete the State Route 520 bridge replacement program. They say SR-520 is a separate issue that shouldn’t affect them as non-users.

The Oct. 10 meeting at Bellevue College was the first of three to be hosted by the Washington State Department of Transportation, which is gathering feedback about the proposed tolling and viable alternatives for the state Legislature to consider.

The transportation department plans to complete Eastside SR-520 improvements by summer 2014 and replace the floating bridge from Seattle to Medina by 2016, which is being funded by current tolling on the highway. But the final leg of the project — improvements to the Interstate 5/SR-520 interchange in Montlake — is suffering a $1.4 billion shortfall.

“The target is to say, how do you will that $1.4 billion from Montlake to the 520 corridor,” said Craig Stone, assistant secretary for WSDOT’s tolling division.

I-90 options being explored for funding SR-520 are proposed variable tolls from Seattle to Bellevue that could cost drivers heading east, west or both, but also suggests certain free routes heading in and out of Mercer Island, where residents have no other alternative.

“It’s always a unique situation to have an island that’s in the middle of a bridge and has a city,” Stone said, adding that residential options for Mercer Island could also be placed on the table.

Mercer Island City Councilmember Mike Cero, who attended the forum, said the Council is trying to determine if the state has the legal authority to toll the interstate to pay for the SR-520 project using the Value Pricing Pilot Program administered by the Federal Highway Administration, which has final say over the matter. Cero said the VPPP is meant to relieve congestion and not to make money for other projects.

“It’s bad policy to use one facility to pay for another facility. The people who are paying for it aren’t using it,” he said. “We’ve hired attorneys and have sent a letter to the governor and FHWA challenging the legal authority to toll I-90 under the VPPP program.”

Speaking before the transportation department on behalf of the I-90 Users Coalition, Will Knedlik was granted about two minutes to make his point in a near-empty room at the college’s cafeteria building. He said combining I-90 and SR-520 into one corridor to justify tolling is disingenuous, and will cause more congestion rather than alleviate it. He told the Bellevue Reporter that I-90 is also important for eastern and central Washington as a freight corridor.

“Eastern and central Washington — this corridor is really their life blood,” Knedlik said. “These are critical issues that we don’t think are being taken into account.”

Mike Pierce of Bellevue shared the sentiments of the few who came out to the meeting, but said he didn’t think appealing to the transportation department would affect the eventual outcome.

“They’ve already decided to do it,” he said. “The corridor has already been completed.”

Alternatives to tolling I-90 that have been brought up include an increase to the state’s gas tax, a King County motor vehicle excise tax, adjusting tolls on SR-520, a transportation benefit district and a road use charge. An express toll lane is one of the latest ideas to surface.

Stone pointed out that the federal gas tax hasn’t increased since 1993, and understands that there would be some fight on the east side of the state over increasing the state gas tax to pay for a western Washington priority. Cero said he could see supporting such an increase.

“The gas tax is a very efficient tax,” he said, “and there’s a lot of support for it.”

The next forum will be held from 4:30 to 8:30 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 21, at Mercer Island High School, followed by a forum from 4 to 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 23, at the Northwest African American Museum in Seattle.

 

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