Mercer Island Council's position on 520 tolls based on impact on Islanders

Over the past few months, the topic of potential tolling on SR-520 and I-90 has been front and center in regional policy deliberations. As a decision point is coming near, I felt it would be useful to factually recap the evaluation process by the 520 Tolling Implementation Committee, the City Council’s involvement in the process, the findings, as well as the policy position publicly expressed by the Mercer Island City Council.

In 2008, the 520 Tolling Implementation Committee was created to evaluate tolling for future financing to replace the 520 bridge by engaging citizens and regional leadership, enhancing understanding of tolling alternatives, and reporting back to the governor and state legislators in January 2009. The act recognized that $1.5 to $2 billion in funding from toll revenue may be required to secure financing for the project. Since May 2008, the Committee has had numerous meetings with regional leadership as well as public forums to present data and ask for comments and suggestions on areas of interest. Three public forums were held on Mercer Island, more than any other Eastside community.

Before the Committee convened the first meeting, I met with Bob Drewel, Chair of the Tolling Committee, and presented him with all the documents supporting Mercer Island’s unique relationship to I-90, and copies of all the interlocal agreements that our city has with the other signatories of the 1976 I-90 Memorandum of Agreement, the document governing the configuration and operation of the freeway.

The trigger to formulating our city’s policy was finding out what traffic diversion would occur on I-90 if SR-520 were to be tolled. The City Council did not take a position on tolling I-90 until the diversion data was completed. If the data showed a significant diversion to I-90 as a result of tolling 520, Islanders would be negatively affected unless I-90 was tolled. When the final data was released, it showed that there was no significant diversion to I-90 by tolling SR-520. Due to the findings, the City Council immediately released its policy position expressing its opposition to any form of tolling on I-90 to fund the new 520 bridge. In our opinion, tolling I-90 was not in the region’s interests of making the transportation system run more efficiently. Rather, it was an arbitrary funding strategy to replace the 520 bridge.

It is important for the region to understand that Mercer Island is committed to solutions to regional transportation needs, and by taking a non-tolling position on I-90, we are not inconsistent with those values. Mercer Island has historically supported regional transportation investments. In fact, Mercer Island was the only city in King County that supported all Sound Transit ballot initiatives.

The 520 Tolling Implementation Committee will be presenting its work to the governor and state Legislature early this year, after which the House Transportation Committee will draft the tolling legislation. Former Mercer Island Mayor and State Legislator Judy Clibborn chairs that committee. If anyone understands the history and unique reliance of Mercer Island on I-90, it is Judy Clibborn.

On a final note, I want to publicly thank the 520 Tolling Implementation Committee members for their work and the public process that they embraced. They have always been accessible, respectful of our requests, and responsive to our questions. They had a very difficult job evaluating numerous options, balancing the competing interests of dozens of communities and integrating citizen feedback while satisfying their charter as enacted by the state Legislature.

Jim Pearman is the Mayor of Mercer Island.

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