Legislators look for way to save Mercer Island from toll devastation

The Interstate 90 bridge Credit: 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. 

Belden said, "Tolls on a bridge that is already paid for is not a user fee, but a tax."

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