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    Legislators look for way to save Mercer Island from toll devastation

    Residents say something needs to be done if their only route is tolled. Some lawmakers say it's hard to be sympathetic.
    The Interstate 90 bridge

    The Interstate 90 bridge Joe Mabel/Wikimedia Commonds

    If I-90 tolls create a charge to enter and leave Mercer Island, the city's retail and service employees might not be able to afford to work there.

    "I think it would devastate the businesses on Mercer Island," city resident Eva Zamplenye told the Washington Senate's Transportation Committee on Tuesday.  Zemplnye and another island resident Lisa Belden, are co-chairwomen of the "No Tolls On Mercer Island" organization, and have gathered 5,000 signatures so far to oppose that idea.

    The pair noted that very few service and retail employees live on Mercer Island. The island of 23,000 people has a an average household income of $186,356, according to the 2010 federal census.

    Mercer Island Mayor Bruce Bassett said: "What we hear from our citizens. ... they've developed this expectation over time of free mobility. ... People are seeing a huge economic disruption in their lives (if an I-90 toll is enacted). ... The result is potentially thousands of dollars  a year in impacts (on a family)," 

    A toll on the I-90 passage across Lake Washington — which includes Mercer Island — has been mentioned as a way to deal with increasing costs on replacing the State Route 520 floating bridge across the same lake.

    Sens. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, and Rodney Tom, D-Medina, introduced a bill to order the state to look into how to mitigate the effects on Mercer Islanders if an I-90 -Lake Washington toll is enacted. Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, has introduced a similar bill in the House. The House Transportation Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on her bill at 1:30p.m. today (Wednesday) in the John O'Brien Building on the Capitol Campus in Olympia.

    Litzow said the bills are to make sure all the impacts are addressed, especially on Mercer Island, if an I-90 bridge toll is put into effect. He said his and Tom's bills would have the Washington Department of Transportation study three scenarios as possible mitigation. These are:

    • Make toll-free either the eastside I-90 bridge between Mercer Island and Bellevue or the westside I-90 bridge between Mercer Island and Seattle.
    • Only charge a toll to vehicles that cross both bridges in one trip.
    • Let Mercer Islanders and possibly people who work on the island to choose one bridge or another to be toll-free for their daily trips to and from the island.

    Transportation committee member Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, noted that the charge-only-if-both-bridges-are-traveled option translates to no tolls at all for Mercer Islanders. She noted that mainland Washingonians frequently criticize island residents — including those on the almost-island-like Kitsap Peninsula — for choosing to live on islands with reputedly cheaper homes. She noted other Washingtonians raise those observations when island residents fight increases in ferry fares and the Narrows Bridge tolls.

    "Share with your constituents that (being hit with tolls) is not going to create sympathy fror me," Rolfes said. With his district's  residents taking ferries or crossing the Narrows Bridge with its tolls, Sen. Nathan Schlicher, D-Gig Harbor, said, "My constituents share the same sympathy gap."

    However, Rolfes said she and Schlicher will work with Mercer Islanders to get some mitigation measures in place.

    Bassettt and Mercer Island deputy city manager Noel Treat asked the transportation committee to order a full environmental study if tolls on the I-90 bridges are proposed. They noted that if the I-90 bridges join the State Route 520 bridge as being tolled, that would likely shift traffic in greater volumes around the north and south ends of Lake Washington. They also said travel between the Eastside andSeattle would be discouraged. And Mercer Island would be hurt because it does not have a hospital, movie theaters and any Home Depot-style store. Plus new businesses would be discouraged from moving to Mercer Island, they said.

    Basset said Mercer Island is thinking about asking the state to study whether sales taxes collected by the city would suffer if fewer people drive to the island. 

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    Posted Wed, Feb 27, 6:05 a.m. Inappropriate

    They asked for it.



    Posted Wed, Feb 27, 6:47 a.m. Inappropriate

    MI: Welcome to Island life.
    Tolls are a terribly inefficient way to collect taxes on motor vehicles compared to existing methods at the pump or at licence renewal time (30% or more overhead compared to a couple of percent), but,
    IF we must toll to manage congestion as the key motivator for doing so, then MI must pay. Maybe not 100% of the toll, but at least half, because either direction they go, they're using at least half the bridge complex.
    Toll after the last mainland exits, and they [MI'ers] get a free trip off the island and only pay going back.
    That's a fair - fare.


    Posted Wed, Feb 27, 7:55 a.m. Inappropriate

    "devastation" Yes, I imagine if a toll is imposed, Mercer Island will be as empty and derelict as Detroit in a few years.

    But seriously, there has to be logic behind it. Why not just toll the I-5 ship canal bridge? I think the I-90 toll is arbitrary and capricious. Just crank up the gas tax, if you use the devil's nectar, you pay for statewide projects.

    Posted Wed, Feb 27, 8:05 a.m. Inappropriate

    Tolls are a terrible idea.They were a terrible idea when they were slapped on 520 and they are an even worse idea for 1-90. The boondoggle which 520 has become ranks as the money-pit equal of Sound Transit. However, if the politicians insist, we can resist. The answer? No transponders. First, make the state mail each and every single toll bill to the drivers who use I-90. Second, those drivers should ignore the bill. Force the state to take every driver to court in order to collect the bill. It worked in Arizona, where red-light cameras met their demise, and it can work here. Unless the majority of the motoring public gets organized and the state experiences push-back, tolls will spread like a virus with no antidote. Remember, if politicians insist, we can resist!


    Posted Wed, Feb 27, 9:06 a.m. Inappropriate

    These tolls are really a tax and as such need to have a different legislative vote thresh hold.


    Posted Wed, Feb 27, 9:09 a.m. Inappropriate

    Coming from the SF Bay Area originally where there are tolls on every bridge, I'm surprised a toll wasn't put on sooner. One problem of course is that it can snarl traffic at rush hour. It's a usage fee. If you use the bridge, you pay for it. Put in a free car pool lane for 3+ drivers and you may encourage more carpooling.

    Posted Wed, Feb 27, 12:57 p.m. Inappropriate

    “Legislators look for ways to save Mercer Island from toll devastation”

    The plot thickens…right on schedule.

    It’s unfortunate that Crosscut hasn’t followed up with updates or an index of developments relating to our dubious list of mega-projects (Viaduct/tunnel - 520 Bridge – I-90 Tolls) based on the predictions and insights made in their 2009 article titled “When Chopp speaks, parse it closely.” It clearly explained who the players were, how the projects were connected and predicted what and how the trade-offs would be conducted.

    It’s a great piece of journalism that’s proven to be amazingly accurate. It also explains how Seattle manages to spend enormous amounts of tax dollars on mediocre, marginalized transportation solutions to benefit special interests.

    Read it here:



    Posted Wed, Feb 27, 1 p.m. Inappropriate

    Toll the west side, between MI and Seattle. Leave the east side free. Don't like it? It's not much different than it is for Kirkland or Redmond drivers who are going to UW or downtown Seattle: They either pay the toll or go around.


    Posted Wed, Feb 27, 1:22 p.m. Inappropriate

    I live on the Kitsap Peninsula, and the advent of tolls on the new Narrows Bridge hasn't been a hardship - it's been a blessing. I now have two hours of my life back every day I have to commute over the bridge. My only complaint is that they never should have taken the tolls off in the 1960s. That led to the invasion of the California diaspora and the rise of Imperial Gig Harbor, which is annexing up the areas around other southern Peninsula communities like the Nazis in Eastern Europe.


    Posted Wed, Feb 27, 2:09 p.m. Inappropriate

    Hmmm...so this is all about the well-being of the peons who commute to work on MI? I don't think so. The businesses can offer to pay the tolls, if that's really an issue.


    Posted Wed, Feb 27, 2:10 p.m. Inappropriate

    Hmmm...so this is all about the well-being of the peons who commute to work on MI? I don't think so. The businesses can offer to pay the tolls, if that's really an issue.


    Posted Wed, Feb 27, 2:29 p.m. Inappropriate

    How is this any different from the ferry fares, which make the "service class" of the San Juans mostly just live in shacks on the island, rather than commute?

    The fact is, some places are more expensive to live in than other places. If the citizens of the State pay billions for a bridge, then they can expect tolls. If you dont want to pay your employees enough to take the bridge, then you can always do what Ol' Ronald Reagan recommended- "Vote with your feet", and move.

    Anyplace that has high transportation costs, be it Hawaii and Alaska, San Juan Island, or even obscure towns way out in Eastern Washington, have higher costs, and resulting higher sales prices on gas, or beer, or canned tuna. No reason that Mercer Island should be magically subsidized by everybody else, just cause the $185,000 a year households there are such nice people.


    Posted Wed, Feb 27, 3:45 p.m. Inappropriate

    The difference between the I-90 bridge and ferries is patently obvious -- the I-90 bridge is already paid for; ferries require a constant large amount of money just to operate. Ferries are transit -- the I-90 bridge is a highway. You use gasoline in your car's engine to cross the I-90 bridge. You don't use the engine on your car at all on the ferries, therefore you burn no gasoline while using the ferries. It is the ferries' engines that burn fuel taking people across the water, and that fuel has to be paid for. The I-90 bridge does not burn any fuel. The people crossing the I-90 bridge pay for their own fuel to get across the bridge. The people using ferries to cross water should pay for the fuel necessary to propel that ferry across the water, since they are not burning any fuel in their cars to cross the water on the ferry.

    In short, a ferry is not a highway. The I-90 bridge is a highway.


    Posted Wed, Feb 27, 5:16 p.m. Inappropriate

    All infrastructure has a limited lifespan. All infrastructure needs maintenance and upkeep. When you pay a toll, or a ferry fare, its not for THAT bit of concrete, or THAT gallon of bunker fuel- its to keep the whole system running, and to pay for future repairs and replacements that are inevitable and expensive.
    A bridge and a ferry and a road are all publicly funded infrastructure, and when we cut tax revenue so low that we cant pay for them in the normal, time honored fashion, user fees become needed.


    Posted Wed, Feb 27, 5:18 p.m. Inappropriate

    Plus, legally, no matter what you or I think, the ferries ARE part of the Highway system. And are funded accordingly. Ferry fares do NOT pay anywhere near what it actually costs, just as bridge tolls dont.


    Posted Wed, Feb 27, 5:44 p.m. Inappropriate

    Actually, until recently, tolls paid the full cost of bridges. The Tacoma Narrows bridge is completely being paid for with tolls, I believe.

    The "operating costs" for the I-90 bridge are minimal. Probably easily covered by the gas tax on the vehicles that cross the bridge each year.

    Ferries are separated from "highways" in the WSDOT budget, just as transit is separated from highways in the WSDOT budget. Ferries are actually transit, since more people ride ferries as foot passengers than as motorists. Surely, you don't beleive that foot passengers are using a ferry as a "highway", do you? Pedestrians are not allowed on state highways. Yet, they are allowed on ferries.

    Ferries are NOT highways. People who use ferries should pay the full cost of those ferry trips.


    Posted Sat, Mar 2, 7:01 p.m. Inappropriate

    You can argue whatever you'd like, Lincoln... but the law is, in fact, against you. The ferries are -- by definition -- funded as part of the highway system in Washington state. We can even use gas tax monies to pay for them, which is constitutionally forbidden for transit.

    Ferry fares are to have folks who CHOSE to move to an island/peninsula pay for that choice, as Mercer Islanders should be expected to pay for their choice to move to an island (which they used to have to take a ferry to years ago).

    The "free ride" was a gift from the federal government, which they still demanded a highway lid from. They also negotiated what was to be a temporary access to the express lanes, and yet they have fought every opportunity to kick single drivers out.

    It's hard to have much sympathy here...


    Posted Wed, Feb 27, 4:39 p.m. Inappropriate

    A similar analogy is any Metro bus fare for a rider who only rides for a few stops and does not go the whole distance of the one or two zone length of the trip. The longer distance bus rider in theory gets more bang for the fare. Mercer Islanders are smart and many are 1%'ers; they will probably create a unique solution for their 'tollphobia'.


    Posted Thu, Feb 28, 7:18 a.m. Inappropriate

    Based on everything I've heard from and about Mercer Island and Mercer Islanders, I've concluded they really are special people. I believe the state should issue all of them special transponders for their cars that will give them free access to every tolled bridge and highway in the state. And they should also get a special card exempting them from the gas tax every time they fill up. After all, privilege should really not be limited.

    Posted Thu, Feb 28, 8:26 a.m. Inappropriate

    All of the focus (deliberate, I believe) on the Mercer Island effects of tolling I-90 to pay for an SR 520 project that commenced without adequate funding obscures the larger issue - tolling I-90 will absolutely screw over tens of thousands of working people on both sides of the lake who have to cross the bridge to get to their jobs.

    WSDOT's so-called "congestion pricing" schemes are the real class war here - and the fact that self-styled "progressives" have bought into this particular Heritage Foundation wet dream is truly appalling.

    Posted Thu, Feb 28, 7:11 p.m. Inappropriate

    Go north. No tolls on I-5 or 405.

    Posted Tue, Mar 5, 5 p.m. Inappropriate

    I'm pretty sure that the people who live on Mercer Island are not worried about the people who work on the island having to pay tolls to get to work.


    Posted Sun, Mar 10, 1:58 p.m. Inappropriate

    Excellent perspective that’s captured well. Another element is this: folks that work in San Francisco don’t live there – they can’t afford to. Does this sound familiar? Yet, the bridges to San Francisco are all tolled. Service folks use something called “mass transit,” i.e. BART and buses, to get to and from work. The same "solution" can be applied for Mercer Island workers. They have fantastic transit frequencies in both directions, it needs to be insured that this applies to island shuttles.


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