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A stance against I-90 tolls | School District, Mercer Island City Council agree

After Seattle and other Eastside communities started chiming in about the proposal to toll both floating bridges across Lake Washington, the City Council began considering its position on whether Islanders should help fund the new SR-520 span.

At the heart of the matter is whether or not Islanders should help pay for the new bridge at all and whether or not tolling is appropriate for an island without alternative means of access.

The draft resolution states, “tolls must not be imposed on travel to and from Mercer Island on I-90, the only means of public access to and from the Island.”

The Council is scheduled to approve a final resolution at its next meeting on Oct. 6. Councilmembers also asked that the city demand the proposed HOV lane improvements on I-90’s outer roadways be completed before tolls become a reality — whether for congestion-based pricing or to replace the 520 bridge. The third and final stage of those improvements, labeled the R8A Project, is not expected to be completed until after 2020.

“We all have heard in conversations for the past several months at every dinner party, every soccer game, every baseball game, that it’s no tolls,” Councilmember Steve Litzow said. “We need to be very aware of what Islanders are calling for.”

School District Superintendent Gary Plano read a letter to the Council that states the district is also against tolling I-90. Tolls would have a negative impact on district employees, particularly teachers, he explained. Most teachers and administrators commute to the Island for work, he said. He calculated that tolls would cost an employee an extra $5 per day to travel to and from their jobs, which for teachers is about $1,071 annually, and over $1,500 for year-round employees.

“Tolling would affect our ability to attract the best and brightest teachers that Mercer Islanders deserve and expect. We support a resolution that includes no tolls or one toll-free segment. One route must remain untolled.”

Plano also said that about two-thirds of the district employees who live off the Island are from the Eastside, but a number of teachers — particularly those who are newer and younger — are choosing to live in Seattle.

While about 50 residents attended the Council meeting, over 1,000 Islanders have voiced their opinions to the city about tolling I-90. One petition with 800 signatures stated they opposed a toll on I-90, highlighting the unique situation that Mercer Island’s dependence on the highway for basic services and the 1976 agreement that promises Islanders equitable access. The petition also suggested that I-90 should not be tolled unless the entire regional highway system is tolled.

Out of another 170 Islanders who submitted individual comments, about 27 percent entirely opposed tolls on I-90, 11 percent suggested that the toll should be reduced for Island residents and workers, 12 percent wanted a free route off the East Channel Bridge, and the remaining asked for a reduced toll in either direction for Island residents. Some members of the City Council were receptive to the idea of maintaining one free route on and off the Island as a bare minimum, but others suggested that diminished their stance to completely oppose any toll toward the new 520.

“Sometimes I go shop at the 4th Avenue Costco in Seattle, and other times I go to the Costco in Issaquah,” Councilmember Mike Cero said of his decision to oppose tolls entirely and not support a minimum of one free direction. “One city has to have my traffic, but it gets my sales tax revenues.”

Last summer, the City of Seattle publicly recommended tolling I-90 and 520 as soon as possible in 2010. Clyde Hill later chimed in as well, suggesting that tolls within two years be considered. Seattle’s recommendation suggested that two bridge tolls would be “more balanced and systematic and has the potential to improve the efficiency of our region’s transportation system and reduce congestion on existing roadways.” Councilmember Dan Grausz supported the opposition to tolls but also suggested that the Island not take a stance that distanced the city from other regional players, such as Seattle, Bellevue and the state Department of Transportation, in the tolling discussions.

“It’s unrealistic and unachievable to simply say, ‘No tolls, no how, no way,’” Grausz said. “We would not be taken seriously by the other players in the region if that was the position we took.”

With the Council’s resolution against tolls, it does acknowledge that High Occupancy Tolls, or HOT lanes, may one day come to the bridge. It also accepts that future tolls might be necessary but states that Mercer Island would only accept such tolls to fund improvements or a replacement of the I-90 bridges.

Councilmembers Mike Cero and El Jahncke also submitted their own resolution, which the Council voted down two weeks ago but used to incorporate information in the final statement approved on Monday night. Cero wanted language in the resolution that refuted any notion that I-90 and 520 were the same corridor, while other Councilmembers, including Bruce Bassett, suggested that the definition of a corridor was out of their jurisdiction.

“That is a key item, the crux of the argument,” Cero said of the single corridor interpretation. “A nod to the logic that it’s two corridors is supportive of tolls.”

The 520 Tolling Commission is accepting public comments regarding Lake Washington bridge tolls through the end of the year. To submit a comment or get more information, go to www.Build520.org.

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