Mercer Island Teachers, School Staff Might Face $500K Annually in I-90 Tolls

As well as affecting staff, a toll might also make it hard for residents to pass school bonds and levies, the Mercer Island School District writes to the Washington State Department of Transportation.

Mercer Island teachers and school staff might pay up to a total of $500,000 annually, if a toll is placed on the Interstate 90 bridge, according to a letter penned by the Mercer Island School District.

A toll also might make it harder for Island residents to vote for school bonds and levies in the future, as families are affected by cost of tolling, the board writes.

The letter was unanimously approved by the board this week, and all five board members and superintendent Gary Plano will sign off on the letter to be sent to the Washington State Department of Transportation. A copy of the text of the letter is at the end of this article.

Of the Mercer Island School District's 491 employees, a little less than a third live on Mercer Island itself, according to the school district. The rest of the commutes are split -- 31 percent come westbound and 36 percent come eastbound to the Island all on I-90.

A beginning teacher who earns $40,454 annually would pay up to 3 percent of his or her before-tax earnings for a toll, and a tutor or club leader could pay more than 30 percent of their earnings toward a toll, the district writes.

That cost to employees might result in staff cuts, if the district needs to offset the tolling costs in order to attract quality teachers and staff, the district wrote.

The Washington State Department of Transportation is accepting comments on the possiblity of a toll on the I-90 Bridge through Feb. 22.

, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation officials. Congestion also has increased on Interstate 5, Interstate 90 and State Route 522 as drivers avoid tolls on SR 520, according to state officials.

If the state legislature approves the change, tolls on Interstate 90 could start as soon as 2015, according to Washington State Department of Transportation officials.

The state is accepting public comment online at: www.wsdot.wa.gov/tolling/i90/onlinescoping through Feb. 22. Those interested may also submit comments by e-mail at: I90EAcomments@wsdot.wa.gov, or traditional mail to: Angela Angove, 999 Third Ave., Suite 2200, Seattle, WA 98104. Mailed comments must be postmarked by Feb. 22, 2013.

Letter from the Mercer Island School District to the Washington State Department of Transportation:

February 19, 2013

Ms. Angela Angove

I-90 Tolling Environmental Assessment Manager, WSDOT

I-90 Tolling Project

999 Third Ave, Suite 2200

Seattle, WA  98104

Thank you again to you and your colleagues for coming to our meeting to update our board on the I-90 Tolling project and giving us the opportunity to provide input as to the impact tolling I-90 would have on our district.

Because of Mercer Island’s unique position as the only community for which I-90 provides the sole means of ingress and egress, tolling I-90 would affect our district in several profound and adverse ways.

First, the Mercer Island School District currently employs 491 full-time employees.  Of those, only 158, or 32.2% live on Mercer Island itself, with the rest having to commute here via I-90.  Of those, 152 (31%) commute Westbound to Mercer Island, and 181 (36.8%) commute Eastbound to Mercer Island.  Assuming 180 trips at current 520 tolling rates of $7.18 per rush-hour round trip with a Good-To-Go pass, the annual cost for each off-island employee would be approximately $1,300.  This would be an untenable burden to the majority of our staff and would significantly impede our ability to recruit and retain a quality workforce.  For example, 

  • a beginning teacher currently earns $40,454 annually, so tolling would reduce their net, before-tax earnings by more than 3%.  
  • An assistant coach for most sports earns $3,075 per season, and requires approximately 60 trips on and off the island.  Again, assuming a round trip toll of $7.18, this would total over $430 dollars, or more than 14% of these employees’ total before-tax compensation.
  • The impact of a $7.18 toll on employees such as referees, tutors or coaches of extra-curricular activities such as chess club, who typically earn approximately $25 to come here to work at an after school activity or athletic contest, would amount to over 30% of their earnings, making it impractical for anyone to come from off-island without a substantial increase in compensation.

We cannot fill our staffing needs with qualified workers without substantially increasing our compensation to offset the added expense of tolling. Tolling would have a negative impact beyond the classroom as noted in the Addendum written by the high school staff.

We estimate the aggregate financial impact to the district of offsetting the cost of tolling on our employees to be approximately $500,000 per year.  Because our revenues are fixed by statute, this cost would have to come out of existing operations, which would mean direct reductions in instructional support – specifically the loss of approximately 7 of our 250 teaching positions.

In addition to direct operational costs to the district, the impact of tolling I-90 would also severely jeopardize our ability to obtain voter approval for school construction bonds and to renew our maintenance and operations levy.  Last year, Mercer Island voters rejected a proposed school construction bond to relieve severe overcrowding in our schools.  The proposed bond would have replaced 4 of our 5 schools with brand new buildings at a total cost per household of approximately $1280 per year; however the bond was overwhelmingly defeated by the voters who cited the cost as the #1 reason for voting against it.  As a result, we are in the process of formulating a new, less expensive bond proposal to present to voters in early 2014.  

In addition, our maintenance and operations levy, which provides 26% of our overall operating funds, expires in 2014 and will also need to be re-authorized by voters.  We are greatly concerned with the impact tolling may have on our ability to obtain voter approval for these levies.  If one makes the very conservative assumption that each Mercer Island household would make one peak-hour round-trip commute each weekday, and one round trip each weekend, that alone would cost each household approximately $40 per week, or over $2,000 per year, which is more than double what the cost to taxpayers would be for a new school construction bond and renewal of our operations and maintenance levy.

For these reasons, we do not support tolling I-90.  It is critically important to us that any proposal for tolling I-90 mitigate the impact on students, school district employees and Mercer Island taxpayers.  The cost of tolling should not be borne uniquely and disproportionately by the Mercer Island School District out of all the districts in Washington State, and if implemented compensation should be provided.  We are further asking for a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the social, demographic, cultural and financial impact on the people of Mercer Island including those who work for the school district, taxpayers, parents and students.

Thank you again for your consideration. 

Board of Directors

Mercer Island School District #400


Dr. Gary Plano


Thomas Imrich February 16, 2013 at 06:38 PM
"Well done" MISD Board. The MISD and School Board have done their homework well, and are appropriately responding to this very bad proposed I-90 bridge tolling government policy. Now it is time for the City and Council to play "Catch-up", and follow the MISD Board's lead. The MISD Board was able to get a strong letter opposing I-90 Bridge Tolling to the State ON TIME, definitively opposing tolling. So why is so hard for our Council and City to do the same??? It took less than two hours this week for the MISD Board to finalize a very thoughtful and effective letter to the State. Whereas our Council and City haven't even yet been able to do a public released draft??? Is it time for a change of the composition of our Council?
Liz Callahan February 17, 2013 at 02:55 PM
Kudos to MISD and the school board for its no tolls position and demand that the state conduct an EIS. Tolling I90 creates a disproportionate and undue burden on the institutions and individuals on Mercer Island AND the commuting and consuming public in neighboring communities. Tolling is not the antidote to failed leadership on prudent transportation fiscal planning.
Jim Stanton February 17, 2013 at 06:52 PM
The Patch has done a nice job covering this issue, but I had to admit to being in the dark about who on our City Council or among our state legislators is providing leadership in addressing the myriad of issues the tolling plan raises for Mercer Island. Has this plan has been tacitly accepted as "inevitable", or am I just uninformed?
Jerry Gropp Architect AIA February 17, 2013 at 06:58 PM
Councilman Mike Cero has stepped up to this issue. JG-
Ray Burt February 18, 2013 at 12:50 AM
I'm a bit confused by the folks above wondering where the city council has been. This happened nearly 2 weeks ago (and before the school board meeting): http://www.nwcn.com/news?fId=189769321&fPath=/news/local&fDomain=10212 "City of Mercer Island affirms its opposition to I-90 tolling" On the tolling issue, all are aligned. So, why the negative comments toward the city council? Either the folks commenting here (who appear very informed on many issues) are somehow uninformed about the council (hmmm) or, much more likely might they have personal or other axes to grind? Too bad...since it appears everyone is on the same side. Once again, MI politics gets off track due to non-relevant factors that individuals bring. Time to band together, folks!
Jim Stanton February 18, 2013 at 04:47 AM
Thanks for the link. Is there similar information about what our state legislators are doing?


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