Imagine having to pay a toll every time you left your city. People on Mercer Island have to face that possibility, because state officials are considering putting tolls on the Interstate 90 floating bridges. I-90 is the only roadway that connects the island to the mainland. A series of public meetings about the idea is being held this week. The first was held Tuesday on Mercer Island.
But before we get to the Mercer Island meeting, let’s start with a different city and go back a few days. On Monday, the Seattle City Council got a briefing about possibly tolling I-90. It prompted City Councilman Tom Rasmussen, chairman of the Transportation Committee, to crack a joke. “Well, I heard that Mercer Island people support tolling as long as they don’t pay for it,” said Rasmussen.
But if you go to Mercer Island, people find the idea of tolling I-90 anything but funny. Many people at the public meeting strongly opposed to the idea. They peppered officials with questions about the gas tax and whether the state could legally toll an interstate highway.
The tone of the questions prompted a WSDOT staffer to scold the audience.
The state is considering tolls on I-90 to help fill a funding shortfall with the 520 bridge project — a different floating bridge 3.5 miles away. That project has a funding gap of $1.4 billion.
Several different tolling scenarios are being studied. One calls for tolls only between Mercer Island and Seattle. Another would only toll the segment between Mercer Island and Bellevue. Those two ideas would give islanders a way off of the island without paying the toll. A third scenario would toll drivers on the bridge based on how far across the bridge they travel. Other options could surface as WSDOT moves forward with its study.
Island residents questioned whether people could afford what could be a mandatory toll.
David Lindstrom, a retired real estate broker, said the perception of Mercer Island being a city full of wealthy people doesn’t tell the whole story. “We have five retirement centers on this island. A lot of these people are not affluent people. They have to go to the doctor,” he said. “Those are all going to be charges or costs that they were not planning on when they moved onto this island.”
To be clear, state transportation officials said they have no specific idea on tolling amounts at the moment. They said that’s just one scenario they want to study. WSDOT officials are only analyzing the issue. It will be up to the state legislature to make a policy decision about whether to toll I-90.
Still, the state is facing a serious problem with paying for transportation. Officials have long said gas tax revenue is declining and that the need for money is great.
Craig Stone, the director of WSDOT’s toll division, said he sympathized with the concerns from Mercer Island residents. But he said voters have already turned down different options that would have helped pay for transportation projects. “If you go back to 2007 there was a roads and transit ballot measure in this region, it was going to put a billion dollars into 520. That did not go forward. This, perhaps by some, is an alternate to that,” he said.
Mercer Island does have some history in getting state transportation officials to negotiate a compromise. In the 1970’s, residents won the right to use the I-90 HOV lane, even if they weren’t carpooling.
If people do end up having to pay to go across I-90 history could be repeating itself. When the bridge was first built in 1940, it had a toll.
Got an opinion about tolls on I-90? WSDOT wants to hear from you.