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: