A Toll On The Road To School

May 10, 2013

Washington state is considering putting tolls on the I-90 bridge that connects Seattle to the Eastside. This would affect the lives of adults who travel to and from Seattle for work, but what about students who go to school outside their Seattle neighborhoods?

Giselle Gasca and Laura Harrison are seniors at Mercer Island High School. Although they both live in South Seattle, they've each been commuting to the island to attend school for over five years.

Laura's dad was principal of Mercer Island High School, so that's why she went there. As for Giselle, she believes "it's just a better school district on Mercer Island as opposed to public high schools in Seattle."

After years of commuting, both students have a significant connection to Mercer Island. They've attended dances and games, played soccer and visited friends on the island.

If a toll was in place across the I-90 bridge to Mercer Island, suddenly Giselle and Laura's public school education would have a daily cost. Based on current tolling rates for the 520 bridge, here's how it would break down.

  • Giselle and Laura would pay $3.49 to get across the I-90 bridge.
  • Multiply that by a 180-day school year.
  • Then multiply that by two in order to get on and off the island.
  • That toll would have cost a little more than $5,000 over the course of their high school careers.

"I would feel pretty guilty," says Laura of having to explain such a cost to her parents. "Especially because school is something that should be free for everyone, and it's an important part of everything. So I think it'd be pretty difficult to have to pay $5,000 just to go to school every day."

According to the Washington State Department of Transportation, if tolling proceeds, it would begin in 2015 or 2016. If the I-90 toll rates match those of the 520 bridge, by 2016 it would likely cost even more than the above estimate, or about $4.35 during peak hours.

This year, 23 off-island students are enrolled at Mercer Island High School. Seattle parents considering this option for their kids in the future would have to factor in a new cost if the I-90 tolls proceed.

"A lot of people go here for the education that they offer, and it's free," says Giselle, "But if you're paying $5,000 just to get across the bridge, that is pretty ridiculous."

Jon Hanlon from notolloni90.com says that I-90 tolls would affect more than just those who live on the island. "Mercer Island is part of the region," he says. "So it's really an inequality on the people that participate on and off the island, whether that be for faith, school, or whatever."

Giselle and Laura may represent the end of an era regardless. Officials in the Mercer Island School District have talked about ending admission for off-island students, due to budget concerns.

This spring, KUOW hosted an after-school workshop for high school students in partnership with Rainier Scholars at the 2100 Building in South Seattle. It was part of our youth radio program, RadioActive. Five youth producers spent 10 weeks learning what it means to be a radio journalist. They created powerful stories about subjects close to their hearts. Listen to RadioActive stories here and stay up-to-date with RadioActive on Facebook.