The recent $10 billion dollar transportation package leaves out any money for the underfunded SR520 floating bridge, and tolls on I90 are the legislative solution to close the $1.4 billion shortfall. Tolling on I90 is a done deal as far as the legislature is concerned. The WSDOT Environmental Assessment process is simply going through the motions. Mitigation legislation like HB 1945 and SB 5846 is meant to appease Mercer Island, avoid an Environmental Impact Statement and perhaps head off future legal actions. Whether the public, and the federal government as well, is being misled by the state regarding the reasons for tolling of the federal I90 today in order to set the stage for implementing tolls tomorrow on the other federal interstate highways in the area, is a legitimate question? A divide and conquer strategy would be expected to start with I90. Tolling existing interstate highways has the effect on commerce that charging one to c ross over the Washington state border would have on travel – well settled federal constitutional law has not to date allowed state and local governments to impose unreasonable burdens on interstate travel and commerce. Remember, we are the USA, not US of Washington. As a result the state is eying a unique yet narrow federal pilot project program to do an end run to justify tolling the existing interstate highways. Apparently, while the state may be willing to blindly accept the long term detrimental effects tolling of the interstates will have on local commerce and the state economy, the public knows that due diligence demands an EIS to lay out all the impacts.
The official line is that the primary purpose of implementing tolling on I90 is to generate needed revenue for the SR520 bridge program, with the secondary purpose of alleviating congestion on I90 being the end run on the law by characterizing I90 and SR520 as one connected corridor. As to the first point, there is no real precedent for tolling an existing federal interstate highway to pay for a new state highway somewhere else. The legislature would have individuals pay a user fee on SR 520 but a tax on I90 because the toll of a highway that is already paid for is not a user fee when the money goes to pay for something else. But these highways are fundamentally different in any event since SR 520 is mostly a commuter highway while I90 is a critical commercial pipeline. Lumping I90 and SR520 together as a joint corridor is silly in theory and erroneous in practice, and even fails to bring in the other routes on I405 and I5 around Lake Washington, and then further fails to take into consideration the area wide impacts. Unlike WSDOT’s pontoons, the characterization does not hold water.
But look closely and with open eyes at the congestion question. The issue of congestion as a justification for tolling I90 is exclusively designed to garner federal approval for implementing a toll on a federal interstate highway. Anyone with any iota of common sense already knows that the congestion on I90 is inevitable with or without tolling. Contrary to what our state officials would have everyone believe, I90 congestion is not something new arising only as the result of the recent tolling of SR520. It should be evident to anyone who has lived in the area for any length of time that there will always be congestion on I90, and tolling will not eliminate or significantly reduce peak congestion, but it will create real problems elsewhere that will then have to be addressed. I90 is the first domino, with I405 and I5 to follow as soon as I90 falls.
The same congestion rationale can, and will after I90 is tolled, be applied to tolling regional segments of I405 and I5 as traffic is further diverted around I90 and SR520, as well as tolling other impacted state roads and streets (can you say congestion and the need for tolling on I5 and downtown streets from drivers averting the new tunnel in downtown Seattle) - revenue is needed and unless all the roads and highways are tolled there is going to be diversion and increased congestion on the non-tolled roads. Failing to do an EIS on all the impacts is negligence because tolling even just I90 is going to have grave impacts in other areas. So let the legislature be honest upfront and develop its plan to toll I90, I405 and I5 and do a comprehensive EIS so everyone knows what to expect.
I90 is only the first step – it is but the foot in the door. Anyone who opposes tolling of I405 or I5 in the near future should oppose tolling of I90 now. Anyone who opposes the legislature creating system wide gridlock to the north and south should oppose I90 tolling. Anyone who sees the negative impact tolling is going to have on the local and state economies and way of life should oppose I90 tolling. But perhaps at the end of the day all of us in the state deserve tolls as the majority of Washingtonians subscribe to the Republican Party dogma of putting the highest tax burden on the poor and moving up the ladder to place the lowest tax burden on the wealthy; remember we voted down a very progressive income tax that would have applied only to the wealthy and would have generated considerable revenue, so we should feel good about raising needed revenues in a very regressive manner like we do with our sales tax. We do tend to be our own worst enemy.
And please, just forget about mitigation or exemptions from tolling, that focus misses the real point and is divisive by creating the perception that “mansion-ringed Mercer Island” has the influence to play by different rules than everyone else. Face it, regardless of all the difference in situations, the residents of Bainbridge and Gig Harbor and most other areas of the state will never have any sympathy for Mercer Island. Everyone but Mercer Island residents paying the toll understandably leaves a sour taste in most mouths, even many of us who live here. And be realistic, mitigation and exemptions would not last anyway. If I90 is tolled then everyone should pay. Tolling should rise or fall on the merits with the consequences, good, bad, and ugly, falling as they may as people change their life actions, where they live and work, and spending habits. Let business migrate to areas outside Seattle, let residents in Seattle stay in Seattle, let residents on the Eastside stay on the Eastside, let Mercer Island residents move or adjust and pay, and so on, and worry about all the devastating impacts on the local economies and the shifts and reductions in sales tax and other revenues after it is too late.
But aside from all that, a compelling and interesting, yet uneasy, question about whether tolling I90 creates an unacceptable social result, specifically on Mercer Island, should be considered. I90 provides the only ingress and egress to residents, workers, and visitors of the island. Mercer Island is therefore a unique captive player in the tolling process. If one lives in Seattle or Bellevue, or any other community in the greater Seattle area, one can avoid the tolls on both the SR520 and I90 by driving other routes that are not tolled, at least until the tolls do come to I405 and I5. Contrast that today with Mercer Island residents who will have no option but to pay an exit fee to leave their home on the island and an entrance fee to return to the island. Leaving the island includes much more than work related activities, but also visits to doctors, dentists, hospitals, shopping, family, recreation and public and social services. It is a foregone certainty that resid ents of Mercer Island will pay a disproportionate share of the cost of the SR520 program even though residents have no need to use, and as a rule do not use, the state SR 520 highway.
Exactly how then do these entrance and exit fees or taxes impact Mercer Island as a diverse community?
Consider minority populations from the latest census, especially African American and Hispanic populations. The state of Washington today is not truly racially diverse, with a population demographic of 82% white, 7.5% Asian, only 3.8% African American, with 11.6% of the population Hispanic. That contrasts with the United States as a whole which is 78.1% white, 5% Asian, and 13.1% African American, with 16.7% of the population Hispanic.
Mercer Island, like the state, could improve on its racial diversity, but tolling on I90 will destroy what diversity there is today. Mercer Island in 2010 was roughly 78% white, 15.9% Asian, 1.3% African American, with only 2.8% of the population Hispanic (Seattle was 69.5% white, 13.8% Asian, 8% African American, with 6.6% Hispanic; Bellevue 62.6% white, 27.6% Asian, 2.3% African American, with 7% Hispanic). Median single family property values of about $800,000 and high rental costs on Mercer Island tend to exclude new minority and lower income populations. Adding entrance and exit fees to and from the island will exacerbate this reality by driving out existing minority and lower income populations. While some may be offended while others wink knowingly, segregation is still segregation even if it is termed collateral damage.
Consider also the collateral damage to the many seniors living on Mercer Island. Seniors make up about 20% of the current population. Many of these long standing seniors with deep roots and contributions to the Island are on fixed and more modest incomes and own homes purchased before the real estate market exploded in the 1990’s. This population group is already being squeezed by increased property taxes and the economy in general. A toll on I90 will economically burden them to the point that they are forced to exodus the island for financial reasons to be replaced by younger and more affluent families.
It is inescapable that tolling on I90 will create a disproportionately high and adverse social and economic effect on minority, senior and low income populations on Mercer Island. Tolling I90 will operate to drive out and exclude these populations. Only the more affluent will be able to afford the entrance and exit taxes. Mercer Island can be expected over just a few years to become a non-diverse, segregated enclave of mostly white and Asian professionals and their families. Make no mistake, an entrance and exit tax hidden in the form of a toll on I90 will create an unacceptable and discriminatory social result.Tolling I90 is fundamentally a bad economic and social policy.