Compliments to the city for hiring expert outside counsel to help battle back the I-90 tolling proposal. For better or worse, this dispute may end up in the courts. So, it’s important both to work within the existing process and, as any good lawyer would do, lay the foundation for possible court intervention.
Why prepare for legal action? Because so far the officials who support tolling seem predisposed to overlook important data. They seem inclined to disregard notions of fundamental fairness. And, I fear, in the end they may rely on political bias to overcome weaknesses in their analysis of the data and their legal obligations. One role of American courts is to assure that a governmental grand plan — or in this case, its need to close a massive, foreseeable funding gap — doesn’t trump citizens’ legitimate interest in solid, fact-based policymaking and fairness.
Why we need to look closer at the data
On the facts, as some letters to the Reporter have pointed out, it’s extremely important that all parties fully understand the real-world impact that tolling would have on Mercer Islanders, our public institutions and our small-town economy. Discussing the theoretical impact of $1,750 in tolls per car — as some have done — doesn’t provide the level of detail we need.
First off, since the primary motive for tolling Islanders is to compel Mercer Island drivers to pay for completing a bridge they seldom use, we need to acknowledge that the tolls will represent a tax, not a user fee. As a corollary, we need to look at people’s real-world costs in pre-tax dollars. Also, we need to add the impact of toll increases through 2016, since they are already built into WSDOT’s projections (upping the rate to $4.40 for a peak crossing). Taking these factors into account, the amount paid by a “typical” peak-time commuter would be akin to an annual tax of between $2,200 and $2,600 (or more, depending on your tax rate).
It’s equally important to recognize that there really is no typical commuter. If anything, a tax of $2,200 to $2,600 is only a decent estimate for those who commute to work at Island-based businesses and offices each day. These are the people who’d only use one car to reach the Island each workday. In this category, the tax will materially impact the pocketbooks of many public servants, for sure. But it will be most devastating and regressive for hourly workers at our businesses. If you live off-Island, work at one of our shops and earn $12.50 hour, the peak-hour tolling could take away over eight percent of your earnings. This is an unconscionably high tax — especially in a state that just recently, overwhelmingly rejected any income tax on its highest earners.
As to Island residents, despite the biases of some commentators, we are not one homogenous class of rich folks, impervious to cost increases of this size. Our fixed-income seniors will be affected one way, as will empty-nesters who are saving for retirement. We have I-90 “power users,” like those three-car families with two income earners and teenagers who drive. We have families who have maxed out their borrowing ability and who live paycheck to paycheck in order to be close to their place of worship or the Island’s high-quality schools. To shoulder our burdens under the state’s Growth Management Act, we have accommodated more and more apartment buildings in our downtown, bringing onto the Island younger workers at the start of their careers.
For stakeholders to fully understand the impact of any tolling proposal, WSDOT — or, if necessary, the city — will have to conduct a thorough traffic study and align that study with the circumstances of different types of users. Unlike other jurisdictions, tolling I-90 would dig into the pocketbooks of over 100 percent of Mercer Island’s households (off-Islanders who work here, plus 100 percent of residents), so a deeper analysis is not only reasonable, but is necessary to truly understand the local impact.
In addition to individual impacts, it’s critical that the state and/or the city look at the potential liability that all of Mercer Island might bear as a community. Since we are so disproportionately dependent on the I-90 bridge, it goes without saying that our community is at substantial risk of paying a wildly disproportionate share — on a community-by-community basis — of moneys collected regardless of the tolling scheme. The Mercer Island School Board recently wrote WSDOT, and its letter demonstrates why we need to look at the total communitywide impact. As one example, the board notes that Island voters recently rejected a school bond that would have cost each household about $700 per year. A communitywide bridge tax in excess of three times that amount would only make it all the more difficult to win voter approval for rebuilding schools.
In short, to shine light on the most likely impacts, we need to be able to model different tolling scenarios and see their possible impacts scenario by scenario and community by community.
Is tolling really unfair?
At the same time that we look more closely at the data, we need to expand our perspective in order to completely understand the unjustifiable, discriminatory impact that tolling would have on Mercer Island. Here, it bears repeating that Mercer Island is dependent on the bridge for the very basics of life. In addition to commuting, those basics include traveling to and from: medical specialists and hospitals, off-Island shops and malls, the airport, entertainment, sports, religious and volunteer activities, and more. In addition to those who work here, our economy would be impacted by the tolls on the service companies that visit, on utility vehicles, on trucks replenishing our stores, etc. In our country, the government ought not be allowed to cherry-pick a community so wholly dependent on a single bridge in order to impose on it a disproportionate tax to fund a different bridge like SR-520 that we Mercer Islanders rarely use.
No doubt government officials would attempt to show that tolling I-90 to pay for SR-520 is not a tax because users of I-90 “benefit” from tolling even if they rarely travel on SR-520. To give the argument credence would be to allow the tail to wag the dog since, as we all know, the tolling scheme and toll levels all have been calibrated to pay for SR-520. In any event, we can expect some to argue that Mercer Island’s benefits come in the form of congestion reductions, as people seek to avoid both bridges, especially at peak hours. The essence of the argument is that Puget Sound’s highway system as a whole is better off by targeting the two cross-lake bridges for tolls.
The realities of the Puget Sound highway system put lie to this assertion. If you look at the collection of highways as a whole — including I-5 and I-405 — you cannot avoid the fact that all corridors are congested, and they are especially fragile at rush hour. It’s not as if I-5, I-405 and the northern and southern routes around Lake Washington have excess capacity. In fact, extending tolling just to I-90 is sure to exacerbate an already bad situation on those other routes. My own rush-hour commute takes me across I-90’s East Channel Bridge; I turn right onto I-405, go through Renton and head further south. While the one-mile portion of my commute on I-90 can sometimes be a pain, on a far more regular basis I get mired in the chronic back-ups on the Renton S-curves. Tolling I-90 will only make that portion of the area’s highway system worse, just as tolling SR-520 has already worsened traffic through Bothell. Most likely, the life of someone commuting from Factoria to SoDo will get easier, but tolling only I-90 to “alleviate congestion” will make all other parts of the system go from very bad at rush hour to worse. So, the idea that tolling benefits “the entire Puget Sound system” doesn’t hold water. If you want to use policy tools to affect a system that’s already congested in its entirety, then it should go without saying that valid solutions need to be holistic too. Selective approaches by definition distribute benefits and burdens unequally.
But the biggest flaw in the rationale for tolling Mercer Island access becomes clear when you zoom out even farther. It turns out that the state already has a well-established policy for integrating island dwellers into the region’s transportation network — and that well-established policy ought to bar any toll for Mercer Island ingress and egress. We need to zoom out and look at how the state accommodates the needs of people who live on other islands, like Vashon, Bainbridge, Whidbey and even the San Juans.
For years, state legislators and government officials have maintained policies aimed at assuring residents that Washington’s different islands are fully integrated into the transportation network. And in order to deliver on this vision, the state has established a set of benefits and protections. The primary benefit is a sizable subsidy. According to WSDOT, the state’s ferry system has an annual shortfall in its operating budget of over $80 million per year, requiring subsidies from elsewhere. Since the system carries about 10 million vehicles, this means that on average, a vehicle traversing the Sound is subsidized to the tune of $8 per trip. Frequent ferry riders have an added benefit in the form of discounted tickets. There is no surcharge for traveling at peak hours. And even bigger subsidies flow when taxpayers and drivers across Washington cover the ferry system’s capital budget. As a further protection, the state’s Transportation Commission does not fully control ferry fare increases, but is obligated to consult directly with local government officials and stakeholders on every potential fare change.
Why offer residents of insular areas these privileges? These protections? As the legislature observed in 2009 when refining the state’s transportation policy, the ferry system “is a critical component of the state's highway system.” Washington law also says that ferry connections are considered to be transportation facilities of “statewide significance.”
This characterization has direct bearing on how to address the question of I-90 tolling and Mercer Islanders’ interest in equitable access to off-Island locations. The fact that one class of Washington’s island-dwelling citizens already receives extraordinary benefits and ancillary protections because their means of access are “critical” to the state’s highway system should give policymakers pause before they impose any toll at all for ingress to and egress from Mercer Island. Under a policy aimed at integrating insular areas into the fabric of the state’s transportation system, you cannot bestow on one category of island residents substantial subsidies and, on another category of residents, impose substantial taxes or surcharges — the purpose of which is to generate subsidies for others. In other words, you cannot hand those who commute by ferry a more than $8 per trip subsidy to get into and out of Seattle, and then exact on Mercer Islander drivers a fee that is used to finish a bridge for someone else.
Of course, I am not suggesting that there be an $8 subsidy for every trip made to or from the Island. But it is worth looking at the state constitution, which says, “No law shall be passed granting to any … class of citizens … privileges or immunities which upon the same terms shall not equally belong to all citizens.” What I am suggesting is that the state cannot establish a commuting policy that grants one class of island-dwelling citizens substantial benefits and protections, while at the same time not only denying another class of island-dwelling citizens comparable terms — but actually penalizes the second class because of their island status.
Why be on the lookout for political bias
Despite what we Islanders might want in terms of better analysis and a greater focus on equity, as this process rolls forward, we need to brace ourselves for more unsympathetic responses, and from all corners. The governmental and political momentum for tolling is immense, and among off-Islanders, at least at this stage, it looks like our concerns are only registering with a few. If the Seattle Times is any indicator, letter writers from off-Island go so far as to suggest that MI residents are selfish whiners and just ought to buck up and pay their fair share. A few weeks ago, Sunday columnist Ron Judd suggested the same — referring to “mansion-ringed Mercer Island” as a place where we “crafty [people] have come up with a whole new twist on the something-for-nothing revolution.”
Commentators like Judd seem to keep just four colors in their crayon box. In an effort to be witty, pointed or both, they draw an overly simplistic picture of the world, and then they paint the group they disagree with as immoral or unworthy.
If we Mercer Islanders begin to make headway in battling back the tolling proposal, we can be sure more criticism like this will emerge. The goal of stereotyping Mercer Islanders is to help create a political environment that would make it easier for the legislature and the Transportation Commission to brush aside our concerns and our arguments — because our perspective would be seen as such an outlying, minority view that it need not get in the way of the existing plan.
If the political winds shift in that direction, we will need to remind people of our state’s higher ideals. We will have to ask people to ignore the invocation of stereotypes and simply look more closely at the facts and at the most equitable approaches to I-90.
I’m hopeful we can keep the political winds from whipping up any more stereotyping. We are a state that by and large frowns on prejudice. Washingtonians tend to take people as they come, recognizing and respecting our commonalities and our differences. And again, we on Mercer Island come into this debate as one community, but also as a collection of different types of workers and households that will be harmed in different ways by I-90 tolls. What ultimately unites us is that we come into this debate looking for government policy that doesn’t penalize us based on where we live.