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Letter | A response to Deputy Mayor Dan Grausz's letter regarding tolling I-90

February 25, 2013 · Updated 3:26 PM
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A response to Deputy Mayor Dan Grausz's letter regarding tolling of I-90, Feb. 18, 2013.

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.

Any such "arrangement" (with whom? In what form?) only serves to support the general impression that Mercer Islanders are trying to negotiate a special self-serving deal.

Instead of Mercer Island showing strong leadership in the coming fight against the tolling of interstate highways to pay for unrelated state projects, the City Council is giving Mercer Island the questionable distinction of  becoming the first small community (under the US DOT designation of I-90 as "Pilot Project - No 2") to give up without a fight and capitulate in order to get a special "arrangement."

Mercer Island should look at the example set by the City Council and the Citizens of Portsmouth, Va., a small community just like ours. Their free Interstate "Lifeline" was approved by the US DOT as "Pilot Project - No 1" and they chose to fight the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) in court. As a result, the implementation of tolls has been stalled by the governor of Virginia due to the strong protests by the citizens across the state — and the VDOT is "re-examining" the decision to impose tolls.

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.

At the House Democratic Transportation Press Conference in Olympia today (Feb. 20, 2013), Judy Clibborn stated emphatically that she wants (1) a toll on I-90 to pay for SR-520 and (2) a 10 cent increase in the gas tax to raise $10 billion for other infrastructure projects. So it is NOT a question of tolls vs. tax ... it is a question of tolls AND tax. The fact that this gas tax can eliminate the "need" to impose a devastating toll on her constituents is conveniently ignored by Ms. Clibborn.

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.

So, you are evidently prepared to dismiss the 1976 Memorandum of Understanding on the basis that it is 40 years old and therefore has no legal validity. Perhaps you and the City Council should defer to competent Legal Counsel before making such a premature and self-defeating decision on behalf of  our community.

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.

That is the wrong question. The real question other communities across Washington state (and potentially across the USA) are going to be asked is whether they are willing to to pay tolls to drive on the previously free interstate highways.

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.

Again, you are admitting defeat in advance! The Democracy Workshop — www.democracyworkshop.com — is gathering signatures for an initiative that will prohibit the tolling of any portion of the interstate system and terminate any aspect of the state's Interstate Tolling Program. This initiative is designed to bypass the politicians. So, instead of waving the white flag of surrender, perhaps you and the City Council can and should summon the will to support this initiative.

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 which 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.

You conveniently ignore the fact that the tolling of I-90 has been designated as a "pilot project" under the VPPP provisions of the MAP-21 Act signed into law by President Obama on July 8, 2012. That law is a a game changer, and basically gives "pre-approval" to the tolling of I-90 to pay for SR520. Judy Clibborn — as Chair of the State Transportation Commitee — has been working with WSDOT and the U.S. Department of Transportation's local Administrative office on tolling since 2008 (according to documentation obtained under the Freedom of Information Act from the US DOT).

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.

This statement is totally misleading and plays directly into the hands of the "Divide and Conquer" strategy employed by the proponents of the toll. And it is not a "promise" of any kind, but only the practical result of placing only one toll gantry in each direction across the floating bridge.

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 the Council received from an Islander.

Apart from being an "option" that you consider "interesting," the fact that you bring it up seems insensitive to the financial circumstances of many of our senior citizens and others.

Any suggestion that a family must own two cars in order to avoid tolling and the implied endorsement of this bizarre scheme seems to clash with your efforts to turn Mercer Island into a "green" community by imposing a "road diet" on all users of Island Crest Way.

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 short sighted as she more than anyone can protect Islanders as Chair of the House Transportation Committee.

Mr. Grausz, there is absolutely no need for anyone to "demonize" Judy Clibborn. Her public record speaks for itself.

And that record clearly shows that Ms. Clibborn has worked "in partnership" with the U.S. Department of Transportation on tolling for the past five years and as a result of her tireless lobbying efforts, Mercer Island has been selected as one of the first three federal "Pilot Projects" to impose tolls on an interstate to pay for an unrelated state project. And as a direct result of her lobbying, the most vulnerable citizens on Mercer Island are now facing a financial nightmare that may force many of them to sell their homes and relocate elsewhere. And the fact that Ms. Clibborn "flip-flopped" on her campaign promise to prevent any tolling of Mercer Island is a violation of the public trust placed ion her by Mercer Island voters.

Perhaps this is what you refer to when you describe Ms. Clibborn as a person who has done so much for Mercer Islanders?

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.

In that case, why don't you convince the mayor and your fellow City Council members to endorse the No Toll on I-90  group? The "re-statement" of Resolution 1402, which was passed with a 6-1 vote just "muddied the waters" and did not meet the expectations of engaged and concerned citizens of getting a clear and unequivalent "No Toll On I-90" resolution passed by the Council.

Quite frankly, you, Mayor Bassett and the City Council cannot have it both ways. Either you change course and assume leadership by getting solidly behind stopping any tolling of  I-90 — or any of our interstate highways already designated for future tolling such as I-405 or I-5 — or you will go down in Mercer Island's history as having failed all of us in our moment of need.

Claus Jensen


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