November 25, 2008 · Updated 2:38 PM
An auditorium full of Islanders repeated a clear message about tolling I-90 to help pay for a new SR-520 bridge — don’t toll traffic to and from Mercer Island.
Last Monday night, about 100 residents, public officials and local business owners packed the Stroum Jewish Community Center during the final public presentation by the 520 Tolling Implementation Committee before it finalizes its recommendation for the state Legislature. During a public hearing, about a dozen residents spoke before the committee asking for a proposal that includes free access to and from the Island in both directions. Many Islanders also stressed the hardships that they are to expect if the state tolls I-90.
“There’s a gaping hole that you’re not looking at — the impact in the cost of living for those who live here,” said one Islander.
“I am against the tolls for 100 reasons I could think of,” said another.
After the presentation of the five new scenarios and a review of the previous four proposals devised by the Committee, Mayor Jim Pearman read a prepared statement of the city’s position on tolls.
“Even if I-90 must be tolled to reach the funding needed for 520, travel to and from Mercer Island should not and need not be tolled,” the mayor said to conclude his statement, to which the crowd responded with loud applause. In October, the City Council unanimously passed a resolution also stating that the Council was against tolling traffic originating from or bound for the Island.
The three-member 520 Tolling Implementation Committee was established by the state Legislature and appointed by the governor to explore the possibilities of raising the last needed portion of funds for a new 520 floating bridge. Nearly half of the nine scenarios presented by the Committee include tolling both the 520 and I-90 floating bridges. In September, the Committee visited the Island to share four initial scenarios of funding the new span with tolls. The second presentation on Mercer Island was last Monday, and it largely focused on the five new options. Only one scenario included a free route from the Island to Bellevue that would only charge traffic on the floating bridge into Seattle. That was still not enough to please the crowd.
In his statement, Pearman said that city staffers had looked into the impacts that Islander traffic would have on funding the bridge. According to rough estimates, Pearman said that about 20 percent of all trips across the lake on I-90 are trips to or from Mercer Island.
“When we calculated the amount of the tolls paid by 20 percent of the trips across I-90, and then removed that figure from your revenue projections, in every case the resulting funding for the 520 bridge project filled or exceeded the funding gap of $1.5 to $2 billion.”
State Representative and Islander Judy Clibborn, who is also the Chair of the House Transportation Committee, has publicly said that she will get to write the law which will institute tolls. Clibborn stated that the legislature would not simply choose one scenario over the others, but pick the best components from all of the scenarios. Many Islanders, however, did share their views on why they think that the government should not toll I-90. Others suggested that the state look for alternative funds. Island attorney Lisa Belden told the Reporter that she has asked the committee to do just that. Belden said the government could ask voters to approve a Transportation Benefit District or raise the gas tax to spread the burden out regionally, which she views as a more fair approach. A Transportation Benefit District, or TBD, could produce funds, Belden said, by adding a regional sales tax to a defined region that benefits from the new 520 bridge.
“They need to look to the whole King County or the whole Puget Sound [region] to spread the tax burden, instead of on a captive island,” Belden said.
Belden also noted that tolls would divert traffic, dissuade trips or modify routes. The results of such changes would polarize the region — a statement echoed by former mayor, state representative and senator Jim Horn at the presentation.
“That’s a quarter [of drivers] saying they’re not going to cross the lake,” Belden said of the committee’s analysis. “That creates a social and economic moat, and potentially a political moat. That strikes me as odd if they are not considering these other options.”
Belden and fellow Islander Eva Zemplenyi were behind the petition signed by several thousand residents opposing tolls and presented to the committee.
There were also doubts raised about whether or not the federal government would allow tolls from I-90 to fund 520. The Committee is awaiting a response from its letter sent to the Federal Highway Administration about this issue, but due to the election, a reply may not come until January.