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Islanders tell tolling committee to offer toll-free access to Mercer Island

Islander attendance at the sixth and final SR-520 Tolling Open House surpassed other community presentations as many residents shared their thoughts and opinions about bringing tolls to I-90 in order to fund a new 520 bridge.

According to the state Secretary of Transportation, Paula Hammond, who is also one of three members on the tolling committee, Mercer Island won the prize for most attendance, with about 80 guests filing into the Community Center at Mercer View. Following a 30-minute presentation last Wednesday evening, several audience members echoed the request for a toll-free direction off the Island. Others suggested it would only be fair that Islanders be completely exempt to tolls.

During the presentation, Hammond said the committee was considering a no-toll option as a result of public comments already received as many Island speakers were compassionate about retaining free access, whether one way or both ways.

"The reduction of half price for Islanders is ridiculous," said one Islander. "We need a free way off the Island and without that, I am willing to go to war over this."

In response to the requests and recommendations coming from the crowd, the three-member 520 Tolling Commission composed of Hammond, Bob Drewel, the president of the Puget Sound Regional Council and Dick Ford of the Washington State Transportation Commission, stated that they would take these into consideration as they review all public comments.

"We will be back after we have a chance to look at all the input," Drewel said of the commission's plan to review the comments for the next couple of months and return with more fine-tuned scenarios.

Other speakers in the audience recommended that Island residents — and workers — not be charged any toll to use the bridges because the interstate is the only transportation option connecting Islanders to needed services such as hospitals, job training and shopping. Some suggested that the committee consider the tolls' potential impact on the Island's local economy, mainly the largest employers, which are the city, school district and Farmer's Insurance. One speaker noted that well-above-average home prices already make it difficult for most Island employees to live on the Island, and making it cost more to get to work might make it harder to get qualified teachers or police officers.

"Many of our firefighters, police and teachers do not live on the Island. You need to consider that," said Islander Margaret Mead.

Several city officials were in attendance, including City Manager Rich Conrad, Council members Mike Cero and Bruce Bassett, as well as Mayor Jim Pearman.

Four tolling scenarios were presented, but the panel insisted that nothing was set in stone. The tolling committee is currently seeking public comment on the four proposed scenarios through the end of the month and will be making a final recommendation to the state legislature in January after it reviews that input. According to Mercer Island resident and Chair of the state House Transportation Committee, Rep. Judy Clibborn (D-41), a tolling bill brought forth in the legislature would take the best bits and pieces of each scenario to create the most fair option for both Islanders and the region.

Without installing any toll booths, the electronic and variable tolling locations in one proposal would be at the western shore of the Island for crossing the floating mid-span bridge. The second toll would be collected on the other side at the East Channel Bridge. No toll would be paid to cruise I-90 within the borders of the Island.

Committee members also said during their presentation that a traffic-impact analysis showed diversion to I-90 would result if 520 was the only bridge tolled. However, many Islanders were skeptic that drivers would divert south to I-90 to avoid a toll if paying for the extra gallons of gas would be an equivalent cost. The committee members said their future considerations would evaluate the impact that higher costs of gas would have on diversion assumptions.

The current traffic-impact models presented at the open house showed that more cars would use I-90, in both directions, if only 520 was tolled. Islanders could expect about 175,000 cars passing through the Mt. Baker tunnel in 2010 if 520 was tolled but not I-90. If both bridges were tolled in 2016, daily traffic flows through the tunnel would be about 40,000 fewer cars.

On the other side of the Island, the East Channel bridge would see similar results. According to the models, there would be 162,000 cars crossing the channel a day if no toll was implemented on either bridge in 2016. However, tolling I-90 and 520 concurrently that year, there would be about 30,000 fewer cars crossing the East Channel than if only the new bridge was tolled.

To submit comments or learn more information about the four proposed scenarios, go to www.build520.org.

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