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WSDOT Draws Overflow Crowds, Opposition at I-90 Tolling Hearing

Several hundred people filled the WSDOT public information meeting to ask questions and voice concerns about the likely possibility of tolling Interstate 90 between I-405 and I-5.

A toilet seat framed with the words "Toll Plans" near the entrance of the Mercer Island Community & Event Center might have given WSDOT officials an indication of how their presentation to study tolls on Interstate 90 would be received Tuesday night at the first of three public forums.

An overflow crowd of 300-400 people jammed inside a room in an at times raucous gathering at the Mercer Island Community and Event Center, looking for a way to weigh in on plans by the State Legislature to begin tolling I-90 between I-5 in Seattle and I-405 in Bellevue.

Large placards explaining the options currently under consideration were placed at the front of the room, including possible locations for new toll gantries, which could be placed on the west side of the Mt. Baker I-90 tunnel, the west side of Mercer Island and on the west side of the East Channel Bridge, also on Mercer Island.

WSDOT Tolling Division Assistant Secretary Craig Stone told the gathering that the agency was looking to the public to help them determine the "scope" of how broadly the upcoming study, called an Environmental Review, would look at the effects tolling I-90 could have on the communities it currently serves. Once complete, the study will then offer recommendations to legislators.

It was the State Legislature, Stone said, that directed WSDOT to review possibilities of tolling Interstate 90 at some point in the future to help them pay for completing the replacement of the SR 520 Floating Bridge — freeways which they view as directly linked as a "crosslake corridor". Legislators could possibly approve a tolling plan as soon as 2014.

"Normally in a big project, you're talking about maybe building a road or a school or something," he said. "You're looking at envionmental footprint, you're looking at wetlands. We're not really talking about those types of things here. Most of this is social standpoint, saying, if you put tolling on I-90, what's going to happen?"

Stone, despite occasional jeers and challenges from the crowd, took over a dozen questions from the audience and described the need for taking a look at tolling I-90 as twofold: To help pay down the $1.4 billion gap in funding for replacing the 520 floating bridge, and to manage traffic problems — particularly on I-90, which saw an average 11 percent increase in traffic that resulted from tolling 520.

Under questioning, however, Stone conceded that WSDOT did not currently have authority to toll I-90, though he believed the state could successfully gain permission from the federal government to do so under a "Value-Pricing" program. He cited the Elizabeth River Crossings project as an example of the state — in this case, Virginia — using tolling to pay for improvements elsewhere in a transit corridor. The private-public project is currently the subject of a lawsuit from a citizen's group in Federal Court.

A local business owner also asked Stone if the study would consider the effects a toll could have on small businesses like hers on Mercer Island. Stone said the assessment of economic impacts would have to be limited at some level and might not examine the effects at the "micro level."

"We may not be able to satisfy everybody," he said.

Although it was billed as a public meeting, WSDOT Tolls Division spokesperson Colleen Gants drew criticism when she told the audience that the three-hour meeting was to encourage residents to fill out comment cards and gather information in an "Open House" setting, rather than as an open forum open to all speakers.

A "No Tolls on I-90" protester entered the room to applause shortly afterwards, shouting his disapproval and hoisting a sign emblazoned with the words, "Keep I-90 a FREE WAY".

Gants later told Patch that the cost of the toll to cross one or two toll gantries had not been determined yet and would ultimately be the responsibility of the State Tolling Commission to set toll rates. But she said any toll pricing structure would likely mirror the 520 Floating Bridge. By some estimates — formulated by local residents — paying a toll each way on .

Mercer Island business owner Liz Callahan echoed the concerns of many residents asking questions as she worried about the impact the additional costs of tolls would have on non-residents who commute to the Island on a daily basis — potentially adding thousands of dollars to the cost of working there.

"We're just adding to the cost of trying to retain these professionals, like school teachers and police, to retain them," she said. "It's taxpayer money that pays for them, so it's like they're just playing a giant shell game with our money."

Stone also said that the study would include studying discounts for captive populations which had no alternative to using I-90.

It was WSDOT's second meeting this month on Mercer Island, and citizens at an earlier Jan. 7 meeting at Mercer Island City Hall attended the presentation as well, voicing oppostion. Several city council members, all recently voicing opposition to the tolls, attended the meeting, but no local state legislators attended — including local State Sen. Steve Litzow (R-Mercer Island) and Rep. Judy Clibborn (D-Mercer Island), the current State House Transportation Committee chair.

Mayor Bruce Bassett said he hoped more citizens would consider his proposal of placing two I-90 tolling gantries on either side of Mercer Island, hoping that this might provide information that residents and employees could use to ask for a reduced toll or an outright exemption.

"There are a lot of people that are saying 'No Tolls on I-90' and that's the end of the conversation," he said. "I think that might be less effective than trying to understand how to get the best outcome for us."

There are two more public meetings where WSDOT will take public comment in Bellevue and Seattle. Here are the details:

  • Bellevue City Hall Jan. 30 (4pm-7pm) 450 110th Ave NE, Bellevue, WA 98004
    Get directions
  • Yesler Community Center Jan. 31 (4pm-7pm) 917 East Yesler Way Seattle, WA 98122  (construction on East Yesler Way - please access parking from Washington St.) 
    Get directions 
UberRandy January 31, 2013 at 02:09 AM
I would pay a toll to drive on any Highway or Freeway in Washington if we got rid of the state B&O taxes, gas tax, liquor tax and cut the sales tax to 1%.
Hellen Fung January 31, 2013 at 08:08 AM
We would like to encourage the non-Mercer Island residents, who will be impacted negatively by the I-90 tolls, to send in your comments. We need to be counted, too! We have sent the following to: I90EAComments@wsdot.wa.gov We live east of I-405. We are over 70+ years olds and are on fixed income. Naturally, our major concern is the negative impact it will have on us in the social realm. Our children live in Seattle, we go to eat in Chinatown often, we attend the Congregational Church on Mercer Island every Sunday, not to mention other necessary trips across I-90. Being on fixed income, what are you asking us to cut out? In our younger years, we had already paid our share of I-90 tolls, as well as the 520 tolls when it was first built. We can see and understand the need for new tolls for 520 users who will benefit by the improvement, but it is absolutely unfair to make people who use I-90 to be tolled to cover the cost of 520 improvement, especially people, like us, who had paid for the construction of I-90 already. In principle, it is WRONG! We say NO to tolling I-90. Bill and Hellen Fung
christine February 01, 2013 at 03:14 PM
Just emailed our representatives. I keep thinking of all of those people that are most effected by this idea... and it just gets worse and worse. We are talking about people who are hard working people that simply need to go to their jobs. On Mercer Island, I think about the police, teachers, fire, service. Then there is another group - small business owners on Mercer Island and their customers. How will this affect those who would otherwise traverse the lake for restaurants etc. The fixed income people, (or anyone) on Mercer Island that go to doctor, pediatrician, required human service in bellevue or seattle, OR the families that live off island that shuttle their elderly who are to doctors (they will have to pay 4 times in 1 day to do this!!!). There are only 2 ways across the lake and they would BOTH be tolled? We can't penalize hardworking people simply going to their jobs. I understand the shortfall, but the toll will have to be minimal (less than $1.00), or there will have to be prpvisions made, OR keep searching for another alternative.
j February 01, 2013 at 07:03 PM
I don't see how tolling of this area is any different than tolling for the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and the captive audience on the Olympic Peninsula - who are most likely alot less affluent than those on Mercer Island. And since the Tacoma bridge toll is about to go UP to $4.50 or so each way - the I-90 toll should START at that point.
Blah Bloggs February 01, 2013 at 07:13 PM
Not everyone on Mercer Island is affluent - think senior citizens on fixed incomes for example. Do those on the Olympic Peninsula have to cross the Tacoma Narrows Bridge to go to Trader Joes or Target, to visit the Dr, or take their kids to activities? (See Christine's comments above). Isn't the toll on that bridge to pay for that bridge? The toll on the I90 wouldn't even be for the I90 but for a bridge few Mercer Islanders use with the irony that Mercer Islanders would be the ones most contributing to the 520 toll revenue.
Dan Kolton February 01, 2013 at 07:19 PM
As I posted elsewhere on this blog: At the recent DOT meeting held at the MICC and led by Craig Stone, I came away with the information that DOT is not where the pressure needs to be aplied to be heard on this issue. Craig Stone and his team are another wheel in the cog of government 'just doing their job' to collect information and later send it on to the Legislature. It is our own State Rep. Judy Clibborn, Chair of the Transportation committee in Olympia, that will be the one to sell us out in the end. Go look at a map of her district. Oddly, it includes Mercer Island, and we are a BIG part of her district. The only thing politicians understand more than a 'need for more revenue' is losing their own jobs. And what does our District Rep think of tolling? From a link on her own website to her own words: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hT11gc3mAFk Yes folks, YOU use I-90, so you should pay. It is only 'fair' per Judy. And since she runs the Transportation Committe and thus is the most powerful person on Transportation in Olympia, prepare for a dose of 'fairness' to come your way. Here's Judy's website, in case you want to 'contribute' to the demise of your own community. Though I encourage you to 'send her a comment' instead of a contribution. http://www.judyclibborn.com/ ******************************
Dan Kolton February 01, 2013 at 07:21 PM
Addendum: I met with Craig Stone one on one (by happenstance) just before he came into the room for this meeting. I highly encouraged him to make it an open mike session, and told him he had a very unruly crowd if such were not to occur. He did so. I believe Mr. Stone is doing his best in a difficult situation. He is tasked with doing his job, even if his job is something we all disagree with in the end. What some at the meeting seemed not to grasp was, in the end, the decision is not his, it is the Legislatures. The meeting may have been poorly held, but other than making us aware of how we need to comment and to whom, it is irrelevant. We need to be dealing with the Council & the Legislature, and particularly Judy Clibborn.
Thomas Imrich February 01, 2013 at 07:34 PM
@j. Mr or Ms j, if you do not see the profound difference between the Tacoma bridge example, and the contrast with our captive island community, with no other lifeline, facing the Goliath of essentially insatiable eastside demand on our Interstate highway bridge, then perhaps you need to get glasses and go back to school to study logic, transport, math, economics, and history. Further, your assertion of $4.50 tolls is likely but a start, at how high they likely could eventually go, once "yield management" kicks in, for this new, regressive, inappropriate, and unfair tax scheme, that could adversely affect the entire region, as well as crush our particular community.
Thomas Imrich February 01, 2013 at 07:43 PM
Good comments Dan. In addition, we need to think seriously about going directly to the US DOT, reference MAP-21, as well as opposing this at the State level. We need to maximize the probability that US DOT will DISAPPROVE any future I-90 State tolling revenue diversion proposal request. US DOT has not yet signed on the dotted line, even though the State may believe it is all "teed up" for approval. Further we (Mercer Island) ought to consider linking with Portsmouth VA, in their legal challenge on the Virginia version of this very similar inappropriate revenue diversion issue.
John February 01, 2013 at 07:44 PM
No creative thinking - the best Clibborn can do is waste $2M of taxpayer money on a study for tolling that will be fiercely opposed by the public? Conveniently after November's re-election, she has backed off on her prior 2/13/09 statement to the Seattle Times that tolling I-90 "isn't on the table and it won't be." Now she says tolling is "inevitable." Why are our Oly rep's not taking a clear stand for their constituents on this one? Isn't that what we elected them to do - advocate for the interests of their districts? She's a classic case of a politician who's been in office too long, and lost touch with her constituents - Clibborn needs to go...
BVorontsov February 01, 2013 at 07:46 PM
In keeping with Miss Clibborn's affinity for increased taxes and tolls to fund her various social justice programs, I'm sure she won't have any problem gifting her 80 foot yacht to financially under-privileged islanders who can use it to get on and off the Island. HMS Clibborn? Maybe we can convert it to a casino and use the profits to pay for budget shortfalls. Or better yet, let's vote for law makers who are fiscally responsible.
Michael Boyd February 01, 2013 at 10:04 PM
For what it's worth, I emailed Judy Clibborn January 29 expressing my opposition to I-90 tolls. I never heard back - either in favor of or opposed to tolls. Today I sent her office an email asking is she's OK. Maybe she's out with the flu.
Michael Boyd February 01, 2013 at 10:50 PM
The following is a quote from the 2006 Seattle Times: "They sit on different sides of the aisle in Olympia, but when it comes to holiday gatherings, the Eastside R's and D's agree on having fun. Judy Clibborn of Mercer Island, Rodney Tom of Medina, Toby Nixon of Kirkland, Fred Jarrett of Mercer Island and Ross Hunter of Bellevue — all representatives from the 41st, 45th and 48th districts — met last week aboard the Venturesum, the Clibborns' boat. Judy Clibborn and her husband, Bruce, hosted the dinner and cruise with the Christmas ships. Also aboard were Tricie Hunter, Susan Jarrett and Irene Nixon. Larry Springer and his wife, Penny Sweet, and Tom's wife, Deborah, missed the event because of work. The party does have one rule. After one year when the spouses ended up in one room and the legislators in another, the politicians agreed to conduct a minimum amount of business and maximum amount of socialization. "It's about having a good time," Judy Clibborn said. Jarrett agreed. ... Clibborn said preparing a full dinner isn't a problem aboard their power boat. It is her home away from home. She and her husband move the boat to Olympia for the legislative session so she can live aboard." Yes, Judy, it's all about having a good time, isn't it?! Of course, tolls don't apply when you commute from Mercer Island to Olympia by motor yacht. Do they?!
BVorontsov February 02, 2013 at 03:22 AM
Those silly Times reporters don't know that on the HMS Clibborn it is an offense deserving of keelhauling to refer to a cabin as a room. Blasphemy you scurvy dogs!
Ellen February 02, 2013 at 10:06 AM
Could not agree more. I have never used 520 since. It is simply because of the greed fee, established way too high in the first place. It is the very price that drives people in principle, away. This is a major issue, principle, I will drive entirely around both bridges, in principle, and any other road, if they start thinking that these roads, of ours, are a new source of revenue, they are not. Ellen
Ellen February 02, 2013 at 10:10 AM
Curious..I like these ideas but the problem we have is we need then to have a constitutional amendment that then does not allow for the re-establishment of yet more forms of the same thing under a different name. What is a fee anyway? How many definitions do we now have of the very same work, tax? Have any of us ever heard of any fee or tax being removed or phased out, for a new or different scheme, that actually ever lowered any removal of dollars from us, ever? Ellen
Ellen February 02, 2013 at 10:16 AM
The yearly fee I am hearing is 5k, you read that right, 5000.00 thousand dollars a year. Often I hear people saying that "we keep demanding services, that we are then unwilling to pay for" I am so sick of hearing this..I demand zero services that are an elective, or extra, ever. I never have, and do not want these boutique electives. Why are we building a new bridge anyway? 520 is not that old. Charlie Chong once told me that there are these lenders..there are about 4 of them, mega lenders, and they look for cities about the size and scope of ours, this area, and they pitch these "mega projects" that they lend on, and they sell these plans to governments such that they then pledge these projects against our property and or fees, taxes etc. They make about 100 percent on their money approx over 20 years or so. So, a 2billion dollar lend nets them about 2b and so forth. I think Charlie was right. What he was asking me was...do we need these mega projects? Really? Why? Ellen
Ellen February 02, 2013 at 10:20 AM
She looks insane, and incapable of hearing, or listening at all. I would imagine her mind is closed entirely.
BVorontsov February 02, 2013 at 02:18 PM
Aren't you being a litte harsh Tom I?
BVorontsov February 02, 2013 at 03:07 PM
I just watched the Clibborn video Dan K linked in his above post. I was stunned by the "I know what's best for you" tone. Reminds me of the mayor's "Father Knows Best" plea for the nearly quarter billion dollar school bond measure. The arrogance and narcissism is troubling. I suspect that with a little digging and sniffing in and around Olympia, the breadth of political paybacks and shenanigans would be staggering. Time to drain the swamp in Olympia before we're all toasted by the scorched earth policies of our self serving politicians.
Michael Boyd February 02, 2013 at 03:07 PM
There is a Mercer Island City Council special meeting being held today (Saturday, Feb 2, 09:00 AM at the MI Community Center) to discuss tolling with former MI mayors. The public can attend but input will not be accepted. From the responses I have received from MI City Council members, the City's response to tolling proposals will be on the agenda at the next regular City Council meeting (Monday, Feb 4, at 7:00 PM). My understanding is that public comment is allowed at the regular meeting.
BVorontsov February 02, 2013 at 04:28 PM
Thank you for the info. Interesting how public input/comment won't be allowed. However considering how voters rejected two measures to build and replace a functional sports facility in Seattle (which the tax payers were and probably are still financing), which was built anyway, I suppose it is really no surprise the will and voices of the people are irrelevant to our politicians. Also, what could the council possibly hope to learn from previous MI mayors?
Beary February 03, 2013 at 08:23 AM
By tolling the I-90 bridge, it "may" help decongest the traffic and even the flow on the bridges or more than likely it will push the problem else where. When the state started tolling 520, it made people take 522 and I90 which made it an impact to the residents of those area's normal life. If we toll I90, people will still divert to 522 and some will even go as far as going 405S thru Renton and back to Seattle either thru local routes or the highways. We are just pushing the problem into someone elses lap. What next, toll 405 so people do not divert there and toll I5? We are trying to collect water with a sieve. If you use 520, pay the toll. If you don't use it, why pay? Seems a little like welfare to me. Why not raise metro fares? When was the last time metro had a real fare increase? We could also look into making the Park & Rides as a pay to park lot (you pay $5/car per day). A lot of people use the Park & Rides as a meeting up point to car pool. Turn it into a revenue stream for the state. A lot of the tab fees and car related taxes we pay help to fund the Park & Rides along with keeping the metro system running. Metro system puts as much wear and tear on the roads as the normal users. Carpoolers has to pay the toll regardless of how many people we can cram into a minivan, but people on the metro system do not.
Beary February 03, 2013 at 08:23 AM
Metro riders has the option to ride the bus and they benefit by not having to pay attention, able to nap/read/relax on the ride and not have to pay $15-$25/day to park their car in Seattle. They benefit a lot but do not pay their fare share of their use. If the state is looking to make more money, how about making some of the riders chip in a bit more for their bike lanes everyone is putting in everywhere. Cities are spending millions using tab fees and gas tax fees to fund these, but again at the expense of others. I am not saying tax 4-5 year olds learning to bike, but maybe a tax on commuter bikes? I'm just saying the cost of the new 520 bridge should not be the sole responsibility of the car drivers nor become other peoples financial burden. Everyone will find a way around to paying the toll. The question is at what cost and what collateral damage.
Al Huhs February 04, 2013 at 06:23 PM
If the objective is to prevent a "free pass" for drivers commuting to and from Seattle, you toll the Westside of Mercer Island. If the objective is to prevent a "free pass" for drivers commuting to and from Mercer Island and the Eastside, you toll the Eastside of Mercer Island. This option is "unfair" because no other community is tolled accessing I-90 and 405. If the objective is to prevent a "free pass" for everyone driving on or off Mercer Island, you toll both sides of Mercer Island. This option will transform Mercer Island into an island similar to Vashon or any other island requiring ferry service. If this option is selected, it would have severe economic impacts upon Mercer Island and, to be "fair", the State should encircle Medina, Clyde Hill, Hunts Point, Bellevue, Newport, and Kirkland with tolls for the privilege of their drivers accessing 405, I-90 and 520. Unfortunately, what are lost and not considered in the tolling arguments are the impacts upon those people who are on tight budgets, and live or work on Mercer Island, or are required to traverse across Mercer Island. And, what are lost in the equation are the adverse financial consequences that tolling will cause businesses, governments and property owners on Mercer Island.
Dan Kolton February 04, 2013 at 06:38 PM
City Council meeting tonite @ 7PM. Just a reminder.
Jenny Manning February 04, 2013 at 07:30 PM
Thank you for the reminder, Dan! Here's a link to tonight's meeting agenda (http://patch.com/A-1BCn), which will include a briefing on I-90 Tolling from WSDOT representatives.
Al Huhs February 04, 2013 at 08:17 PM
Continuting from earlier post:. What we need are long-term solutions where the costs are spread-out over a wider base. The tolling of I-90 is not a long-term solution. We should form a county-wide or tri-county funding entity that subsidizes the construction of large transportation projects through existing, new and creative funding sources. By spreading the costs over a wider base, the impacts upon those people who can least afford to pay will be less severe. To me this approach is more “equitable” and “fair”, and promotes a long-term solution to our transportation needs. Al Huhs Former Councilmember & Deputy Mayor
Paul R B. February 04, 2013 at 08:53 PM
Al, this idea was put before the voters in 2007, and voted down. It was called the Regional Transportation Improvement District that included King, Pierce and Snohomish counties. Our favorite mall owner Kemper Freeman spend millions fighting the proposal because he didn't think there were enough roads in the package. The 520 bridge was fully funded in the proposal. We are now paying tolls. Thanks Kemper.
Thomas Imrich February 04, 2013 at 09:42 PM
Kemper did the right thing. Their State, WSDOT, and UnSound regional transport plan is profoundly flawed from the start, as is their funding plan. The RTID was simply a bad idea, inducing and fueling yet more waste.

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