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WSDOT to present tolling options to Transportation Commission on Tuesday

The Washington State Department of Transportation is expected to present options to the State Transportation Commission for toll rates on State Route 520 as part of an all-day meeting at Bellevue City Hall on Tuesday.

The decision is one step toward bridging the nearly $2 billion funding gap WSDOT faces in its quest to replace Evergreen Point floating bridge.

The process for this decision has peaked the attention of state initiative maven Tim Eyman, who is speaking out against the commission's ability to approve specific toll costs and ferry fare changes.

Eyman testified at the state commission's meeting Monday in Seattle when a 2.5 percent ferry fare increase, and the possible prices for tolling on SR-520 were discussed. He asserted that decisions that affect millions of dollars in expenses for Washington residents should be made by the state's elected officials, not a group of appointed experts. He intends to repeat that message at Tuesday's meeting.

"Give us a recorded vote; go through the legislative process that any bill does and take a recorded vote," Eyman said before Monday's meeting in Seattle. "That way we all know who did it. You can hold them accountable at the ballot box."

In Eyman's Initiative 1053, a clause exists that requires fee increases to go to a vote of the Legislature. The state body cleared tolling on SR-520 in general, but has not given its approval on the specifics.

State Sen. Pam Roach (R-Auburn) earlier this month requested an opinion from the state Attorney General as to whether these two increases can be implemented without final legislative vote.

At the Tuesday meeting the Transportation Commission will receive the proposal, which includes several tolling options and take a vote that does not represent the final decision. There will be two public hearings on the matter in Seattle and Bellevue and a public comment period that stretches into January, said WSDOT Tolling Director Craig Stone. After those hearings, the commission will consider its earlier findings for a final vote.

The commission is made up of seven citizens appointed by the governor for six-year terms.

The decision on tolls rests with the Transportation Commission because the Legislature wanted to remove potential political problems from the conversation.

If it were up to the Legislature to set specific rates for tolls, it could lead to a lot of mutation within the policy taking away from the impartial nature of it.

"What we've tried to do is legislate so it's a data-driven process rather than a political process," said State Sen. Rodney Tom of Medina.

The Legislature's primary remaining mission in regards to SR-520 is to complete the project's funding package. Tom said state representatives will continue searching for options for financing throughout the year. Failing a new option, it's possible tolls may also come to Interstate-90 to finish off the project.

Nat Levy can be reached at 425-453-4290.

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