I-90 toll discussion draws frustrated crowds

Residents wait in City Hall for WSDOT staff to take questions on possible I-90 tolling. - Celina Kareiva
Residents wait in City Hall for WSDOT staff to take questions on possible I-90 tolling.
— image credit: Celina Kareiva

Eastside residents gathered Wednesday night at Bellevue City Hall to share feedback on the possibility of instating an I-90 toll between I-5 in Seattle and I-405 in Bellevue. Though more tame than a meeting the previous night on Mercer Island, attendants resoundingly opposed the idea.

Craig Stone, tolling division assistant secretary of the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), told the crowd that unlike other major construction projects that require complicated impact assessments, this was a matter of “social standpoint.”

The State Legislature requested that WSDOT consider the possibility of tolling, said Stone. With a $1.4 billion funding gap, the money raised would go toward completing the rest of State Route 520’s construction. It’s too early to determine rates, but approval of the plan could take place as soon as 2014.

“Some people look at tolling as that the user, the region [should be] paying for it,” said Stone. “My opinion is that we have three Washingtons: the central Puget Sound region, the rest of Western Washington and Eastern Washington…We have dramatic needs here…It comes down to how does this region pay for it?”

A round-trip on SR 520, which began tolling last year, costs an average of $7 during rush hour. But more than it is to fund budgetary shortfalls, Stone said that tolls would help relieve congestion on I-90, which has seen 15,000 more drivers daily since 520 began its own program.

Many in attendance felt disappointed with WSDOT, which they accused of mismanaging previous project funds. Robert Shay asked Stone how they could possibly ask the public to back tolling.

“There’s a lot of mismanagement,” said another attendee, referencing media reports of leaking pontoons on the 520 project. “And now you’re asking us to cough it up again?”

Many residents expressed contempt that legislatures were not present at the meeting despite being the ones to order the study. After taking several questions from the crowd, Stone encouraged attendees to leave comments online or with one of the many WSDOT staff present. He assured them that their words would be included in the final report.

Informational boards were staged throughout the room. Outside, a group, self-titled “No toll on I-90,” passed out flyers and asked for signatures.

If I-90 is tolled, where will it end, asked one attendee? Another, an elderly resident from Mercer Island, said she crossed the bridge to volunteer on a weekly basis, and didn’t know if she would continue if charged for the crossing. Still more residents expressed concern for those whose work took them across the bridge. Stone said that while an environmental study would assess community impacts, it would be hard to track the micro level effects.

WSDOT rationalizes that I-90 is part of the same corridor link as SR 520. More hearings will be held in November. If approved, tolls could start in late 2015 or early 2016.


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