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Letter | A political and practical approach to I-90 tolling
Fellow Islanders: Many of you have written the City Council on the issue of I-90 tolling detailing both the impacts of tolling and your ideas on how best the city should respond. Your emails have been heartfelt and your suggestions constructive demonstrating both the legitimate concerns and the ingenuity of Islanders. Let me take this opportunity to provide you with my personal thoughts on tolling and some background information that you might find helpful. This is a longer explanation than what you might normally expect from an elected representative, but tolling is clearly an issue that does not and should not lend itself to simplistic sound bites, sweeping generalizations or answers that suggest there are quick and easy solutions.
There is no question that tolling will have a huge, adverse and disproportionate impact on persons living, working, visiting, studying, patronizing businesses and owning businesses on Mercer Island. For some households, the annual cost could exceed $5,000. I can visualize scenarios in which tolling has a fundamental impact on the entire nature of our community, turning Mercer Island from being one of the most desirable places to live or work in the area into a community to be avoided. There is no doubt in my mind that the city must do what is necessary to avoid impacts or consequences of this scale.
I will start with a description of the state’s financial problem that tolling seeks to address, then describe which level of government is doing what in this process and finally talk about toll reduction/mitigation strategies. As much as I oppose tolling, I think it will be difficult in the end to completely stop tolling on I-90. Having said that, however, and as explained below, I think it is very doable to negotiate an arrangement that reduces most of the adverse impact of tolling on Islanders.
First, why does the state believe there is a need for tolls? The SR-520 bridge project will cost about $4.5 billion, of which $1.4 billion is proposed to be funded from I-90 tolls. If that money does not come from tolls, it will have to come from other sources, meaning higher taxes or curtailing other transportation projects. The state does not really have a SR-520 bridge funding problem; what exists is an overall transportation funding problem that our state is increasingly turning to tolls as the way to address. There are serious discussions that could result in tolls being imposed on several other highways throughout the state. This is based on the state’s conclusion that voters are much more willing to support tolls/user fees than they are to approve general tax increases.
The decision on whether to impose tolls will be made by the state and federal governments, and not by our city. Some Islanders have suggested that the city has a tolling veto based on language in the 1976 Memorandum Agreement, dealing with the prior expansion of I-90 between the state, King County, Mercer Island, Seattle and Bellevue. While I would be glad to discuss specifics on this with anyone who is interested, I think it is at best a stretch and more likely a pipe dream to believe our state Supreme Court will rule that a single local government has a veto over the operation of one of the state’s main highways based on this almost 40-year-old agreement that did not even specifically address tolling.
Two separate actions will be required from the state government. First, the Legislature will need to amend existing law to authorize tolling on I-90. Second, the State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) will then have to decide how to impose tolling.
As to the Legislature, we have been told that tolling will not be voted on prior to 2014, but that it will be approved at that time. It is pretty simple to see why this will occur. The alternative to I-90 tolls is increases in gas or other taxes, which, as a result of various Tim Eyman initiatives, requires a two-thirds approval in the Legislature. The reality is that no other community in the state is anywhere near as exercised about I-90 tolling as Mercer Island and definitely not exercised enough to raise their own taxes. In fact, Seattle believes tolling is good because it reduces the number of cars in Seattle. We all need to be honest about this and ask ourselves whether we would have supported a tax increase in lieu of already existing or planned tolls on SR-520, the Alaska Way Tunnel, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge or the SR-167 hot lanes. That is the question other communities from Bellingham to Vancouver to Spokane are going to be asked.
Some have argued that the state should not be spending this kind of money on the SR-520 project, particularly as part of it is going to fund a park lid and other amenities in Montlake. The obvious problem for Mercer Island on this issue is that these kinds of amenities are what we exacted from the state as our price for the I-90 expansion. We have zero credibility in criticizing other communities for now doing the same, and, in fact, are ridiculed when we raise this point.
Furthermore, the speaker of the state House of Representatives, Frank Chopp, is from Montlake, and the Senator Majority Leader, Rodney Tom, lives on the other side of the SR-520 bridge in Medina. These two individuals, being the most powerful legislators in Olympia, represent districts that are the most interested in getting SR-520 completed. That is a political fact we cannot just ignore. Given all this, we need to be willing to do a reality check here and not tilt at windmills believing that we can get two-thirds of the Legislature to see this our way.
If the Legislature approves tolling, then the federal government’s role becomes important. Tolling of an interstate highway requires prior federal Department of Transportation approval. This approval has neither been obtained by the state nor is its receipt assured, as there is no clear precedent for tolling an interstate to pay for a different highway. This is an issue that obviously has national implications, and I am the first to admit that I do not know how it will come out. As part of its Work Plan, the city will be working this issue as it may turn out to be the silver bullet required to defeat tolling. There is little that can be done in the short-term on this, however, as the state has not actually filed its request with the federal government, meaning there is no pending action on which to weigh in.
If the Legislature authorizes tolling and the federal government approves it, we then come to the second area of state action – WSDOT’s decision on how to impose tolling – which is where I personally think the city has the best chance to protect Islanders. The state has always promised that Islanders will have one free way to go on and off the Island.
Consider a binding agreement that gives Islanders and people working on the Island the right to choose which direction would be free as to each car they own. For example, if a family has two cars, they could designate one that would not be tolled going in and out of Seattle and one that would not be tolled going in and out of Bellevue. That interesting option was actually recommended in one of the emails that the Council received from an Islander.
Consider another alternative suggested by other Islanders, in which there would be a maximum monthly or annual amount regardless of how many times one goes on and off the Island.
When one starts thinking about options such as this, the financial impact becomes much less and we move from a disaster scenario to what one may think of as an undesirable but tolerable one. This is where we need to be talking with Seattle, Bellevue, King County, our state legislators and others, as I firmly believe that by working together, we can prevent unfair and disproportionate tolling on Islanders. Those Islanders who would demonize representative Judy Clibborn in this debate, a person who has done so much for Mercer Island during decades of public service, are unbelievably shortsighted as she more than anyone can protect Islanders as chair of the House Transportation Committee.
Some argue that we should not even be talking about these kinds of options because it is a sign of weakness — the attitude that now dominates life in Washington, D.C., and which has us in political gridlock. I have never subscribed to that political philosophy and never will. We can and must oppose tolling, but at the same time, we need to consider available options that Islanders propose if it turns out that we are unable to stop tolling. How tragic would it be if by refusing to discuss options, we end up with full-scale tolling?
Last week, I had a chance to speak with Aubrey Davis at the annual Youth and Family Services breakfast, only a few days before he passed away this last weekend. For those not familiar with Aubrey, he is a legend on Mercer Island, having negotiated the 1976 Memorandum Agreement. When we discussed the current situation, Aubrey sadly shook his head when he talked about how polarizing the rhetoric had already become and reiterated the philosophy that has always marked his life — people just need to start talking about solutions.
The City Council will be finalizing its Work Plan at its Feb. 25 meeting. It is a multi-prong plan that addresses the above issues and others, such as demanding that an Environmental Impact Statement be prepared. We all understand how critically important this issue is. You have my personal assurances that our city will do everything it can to protect your interests and prevent unfair and disproportionate tolling of Islanders.
Mercer Island Deputy Mayor