Compliments to the city for hiring outside counsel to battle the I-90 tolling proposal. We need to be prepared for this dispute to end up in court. Why anticipate legal action? Because so far those supporting tolls seem predisposed to overlook important data as well as notions of fundamental fairness. And in the end, they may rely on political bias to overcome weaknesses in their analysis. More digging will need to be done, but as I mull things over, I see several flaws in the case supporters are making.
First, let’s question whether the current plan really is for “tolling” in the traditional sense. If you regularly use I-90, make little use of SR-520, but are compelled to pay for SR-520 anyway, then arguably you are being taxed. We need to be upfront about that. The suggestion that Puget Sound’s whole system is better served by tolling the two bridges does not hold water. You cannot avoid the fact that all Puget Sound corridors are congested. Tolling just I-90 will exacerbate an already bad situation elsewhere. If you really want to reshape a system that’s thoroughly congested, then any valid solution must be holistic, too.
Second, WSDOT doesn’t seem inclined to examine its plan’s impact in meaningful detail. The conversations to date seem to treat Islanders as homogenous rich class, impervious to costs. As letters to the Reporter demonstrate, we don’t fit that stereotype. We have fixed-income seniors; we have two-income families with teenagers who drive; we have families with maxed-out mortgages living here to put their kids in Island schools; and we have a range of workers who commute here to make their living. We need a thorough traffic study that aligns consequences with different types of users. And, since we are disproportionately dependent on I-90, our community is at risk of paying a wildly disproportionate share of SR-520’s cost irrespective of the tolling scheme.
Next, we should look at how the state already accommodates people who live on other islands, like Vashon, Bainbridge and Whidbey. Their primary benefit is a sizeable subsidy. The state’s ferry system carries 10 million vehicles per year, but has an operating shortfall of over $80 million — yielding an $8 per trip subsidy. Other benefits include frequent-rider discounts, no peak-hour surcharges and even bigger subsidies for the ferries’ capital budget. These practices underpin the state’s policy that ferries are a critical component of the state's highway system. The fact that one class of island-dwelling citizens receives extraordinary benefits and protections, however, should give policymakers pause before they impose any toll for Island ingress and egress. To be fair, you cannot hand some Island dwellers a more than $8 per trip subsidy, and then exact on MI drivers a fee to finish a bridge for someone else.
Finally, we need a legalistic mindset to counter knee-jerk stereotyping. Weeks back, Seattle Times columnist Ron Judd suggested that “mansion-ringed Mercer Island” is a place where we “crafty [people] have come up with a whole new twist on the something-for-nothing revolution.” If we make headway against tolling, we can expect more criticism like this.
In the face of bias, we will want to remind folks that what ultimately unites Mercer Islanders is not some flimsy stereotype, but rather our desire for government policy that doesn’t penalize us based on where we live.