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March 15, 2013 at 3:28 PM

Mercer Island tells feds: I-90 tolls would be illegal

The city of Mercer Island this week sent a letter asking the Federal Highway Administration to block state proposals to toll I-90.

The law firm K&L Gates argues in the city ‘s letter that I-90 tolling is meant mainly to bail out the state DOT, not serve the federal goal to improve traffic:

Moreover, tolling a federal interstate to pay for an unrelated project would set a significant and troubling national policy precedent. Allowing states to toll the federal interstate system to pay for unrelated state projects that face budget problems is not appropriate. States across the country are facing budget shortfalls, and using the VPPP [federal "value pricing pilot program"]  flexibly here means there would be no practical limit to the tolls that could be imposed by other cash-strapped states, despite the general prohibition on tolling interstate highways in 23 U.S.C. § 301.

The state Department of Transportation and several state lawmakers support I-90 tolls, for the sake of solving a $1.4 billion shortfall to rebuild nearby Highway 520.  House Transportation Committee Chair Judy Clibborn — a Mercer Island Democrat now drawing scorn from constituents  — has called I-90 tolls inevitable.

But lawmakers have dabbled with the idea at least four years, without showing the nerve to actually impose them.  Mercer Islanders, part of a burgeoning citizens’ opposition group, have said tolls will isolate them, and impose costs not only on the islanders but on the modest-income teachers, retail employees and caregivers who work there.  A solo commuter’s cost might be roughly $1,700 a year, based on the existing schedule of tolls on 520. Among the state’s options are tolling either Seattle trips or Bellevue trips, but not both directions, so at least one free option exists for islanders.

In the past, officials in the Highway Administration have said they’re open to the idea of tolling I-90, under the “Value Pricing Pilot Program” (VPPP) in which variable rate tolls are imposed to control congestion, and encourage more transit use. Highway 520 won federal aid to enact tolls Dec. 29, 2011. Transit use across the 520 floating bridge has increased by one-fourth in the last two years. Toll supporters argue that tolling both bridges will balance and improve regional traffic.

The letter is part of an environmental review phase that continues until this fall.

Comments | Topics: bridge tolls, I-90, Mercer Island


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