Like it or not—and plenty of people, particularly those who live on a certain affluent island on Lake Washington, don't—tolls are almost certainly coming to I-90. The state faces a funding shortfall for the 520 bridge project of about $1.4 billion, or the entire price tag for the Seattle half of the structure. And with gas tax revenues falling every year (because people are driving more fuel-efficient cars, and driving less), "it's all going to be about user fees going forward," as Washington State Department of Transportation deputy director John White put it yesterday.

Translation: Tolls to pay for 520 are coming to I-90.

"Our forecasting takes into account the [fact that] the gas tax is declining quite rapidly," White said. "At this point, it's not a first-tier revenue source, and user fees are at the forefront."

White made his comments at a Seattle city council briefing yesterday morning, where council members peppered him with questions about how the tolls would work, what impact they would have on traffic between Seattle and the Eastside, and whether it was fair to toll I-90 to pay for a completely different project. And then, of course, there's the issue of Mercer Island, where a vocal group of residents feel they should be able to use the bridge for free, given that I-90 is their only way on or off the island.

"How do you answer the question of, 'Is my money going to pay for my right-of-way that I use all the time, or is it going to somebody else's right-of-way?" council president Sally Clark asked. "That's the feedback we get in the community: Why am I paying a toll to benefit that bridge over there?"

White responded that the state views I-90 and 520 as a single "cross-lake corridor," so failing to fully fund 520 would also impact I-90. Plus, WSDOT needs the money. "The question becomes, what are the available proceeds and how close are we to being able to meet our 520 needs?"

 

Tolls could also have the benefit of balancing out traffic between the two bridges. Currently, with tolls just on 520, traffic on I-90 is up 11 percent, and travel times are an average of four minutes longer. Transit ridership on the bridge has increased an impressive 25 percent, helping to drive a decrease in traffic of nearly one-third.

Meanwhile on Mercer Island, where WSDOT is holding an open house to give the public a chance to ask questions tonight, a group of angry residents has organized as No Toll on I-90. Their argument: I-90 is their only link to the outside world. When they moved there, using the road was free; charging a toll now represents an unfair "penalty tax" for living on the island.

White says simply exempting Mercer Island residents from the tolls would violate WSDOT's obligation to apply tolling policies equitably and consistently across the state. But the state is considering, among other options, one-way tolls and "segmented" tolls, with different tolling points along I-90, which would effectively give Mercer Island residents a lower rate than other I-90 drivers. 

(Editorializing: Forgive us if our hearts fail to bleed for the state's wealthiest residents. Commuters who use the bridge every day to get to jobs they may have taken before tolls are in effect won't get to use the bridge for free, and Mercer Islanders can access the bridge toll-free if they use transit or carpool, just like everybody else. And remember, Mercer Island residents made a similar case about HOV lanes on I-90 in 1976, arguing that they should get unfettered access to carpool lanes in exchange for accepting I-90 in their community. To this day, nearly four decades later, Islanders are the only people in the state allowed to drive in HOV lanes alone.)

Tolls will have to be approved by the state transportation commission, the state legislature, and the federal government.

Tonight's scoping meeting on Mercer Island (Mercer Island Community Center, 8236 SE 24th St, 4–7pm) is the first of three. The second is tomorrow in Bellevue (Bellevue City Hall, 450 110th Ave NE, 4–7pm), and the third is in Seattle on Thursday (Yesler Community Center, 917 East Yesler Way). WSDOT won't be taking formal public comment at the meetings, but you can give them your feedback by mail or on their web site until February 22.