Almost six years after Gov. Chris Gregoire first suggested tolling the I-90 bridge, the state government continues to study whether and how to do so — at a cost of up to $8.3 million just for the environmental studies.
State transportation staff again visit the eye of the storm from 4:30 to 8:30 p.m. Monday in a forum at Mercer Island High School, where they will take two-minute comments, and display graphics about various options. In this round of process, the public tells the state Department of Transportation what angles to examine in the environmental-impact statement.
The last session is Wednesday from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Northwest African American Museum in Seattle. A session was held in Bellevue on Oct. 10.
I-90 tolls are alluring to some legislators as a means to help fill a $1.4 billion gap in the Highway 520 project, which lacks enough money to complete a Montlake interchange and Portage Bay Bridge near I-5. But the DOT’s “purpose and need” statement says the main purpose is to control I-90 congestion, with money for 520 secondary. Many citizens have smelled a conspiracy: Impose 520 tolls that divert traffic, then cite I-90 crowding to justify I-90 tolls. Tolls have made travel quicker for those who can afford them on 520, and are seen as a way to balance a gradual decline in gas-tax revenue, as vehicles become fuel efficient.
In January, Mercer Islanders objected that they — as well as teachers, retail workers or home-improvement contractors who commute to The Rock — have no other way off the island and face an unfair burden, approaching $2,000 a year, if tolls are imposed. The DOT is considering options:
- Toll the freeway on just the Seattle side or the east side of the island, so islanders have one free direction.
- Arrange for special toll passes that let individual islanders choose which direction is free for them.
- Toll trips only entering the island, not leaving it — in effect, creating a 50 percent discount for round-trips by islanders.
- Instead of tolling all lanes, create one high-occupancy or toll (HOT) lane each direction from Seattle to Issaquah, where solo drivers can pay to join the quicker carpool lane. But a HOT lane raises only $250 million instead of the $1 billion goal, and might hinder express buses.
The state graphics include a chart of the public’s suggestions, such as widening I-90, adding transit, or seeking a boost in the gas tax, car-tab tax, or a new tax on vehicle miles traveled. Some of these add cost, and DOT says it takes a 3-cent statewide gas-tax hike just to pay off 520. So the environmental-impact statement might merely pay lip service to the non-toll scenarios.
Of course, effects of tolling go far beyond Mercer Island, as shown in this DOT plot of I-90 users’ residences.
Environmental studies were required by acts of the Legislature in 2012 and 2013. It’s currently illegal to toll one bridge to pay for another, so another bill would be needed. Meanwhile, the studies won’t be final until early 2015.