City Council questions Interstate 90 tolling proposal
January 1, 2013
By Warren Kagarise
The prospect of tolling on Interstate 90 received a cool reception from the City Council, as state officials consider the idea as a way to generate dollars for the state Route 520 bridge replacement project.
The state Department of Transportation is at work on a $4.1 billion project to replace the 49-year-old floating bridge across Lake Washington and overhaul the 12.8-mile corridor between Interstate 5 in Seattle and state Route 202 in Redmond. The floating bridge is scheduled to open in traffic by early 2015.
Though the project is estimated to cost $522 million less than the initial $4.65 billion estimate, transportation officials still need to raise $1.4 billion in funding for the bridge replacement effort. In 2008, state lawmakers asked the Department of Transportation to study tolling along the I-90 corridor as a way to generate revenue for the project.
“We’ve had a number of people who have said, ‘Well, OK, when you’re tolling 520, of course you should be tolling I-90,’ and other people say, ‘Of course you should never toll I-90,’” Craig Stone, Toll Division director for the Department of Transportation, said in a Nov. 27 briefing to the City Council.
Council President Tola Marts said other tolling efforts — high-occupancy toll lanes on state Route 167 and the Tacoma Narrows Bridge expansion — funded transportation projects in the same corridor, and he questioned the wisdom of tolling I-90 if the revenue goes to the state Route 520 project.
“It seems like this would be an extraordinarily unpopular move,” he said at the Committee-of-the-Whole Council meeting. “You mentioned some of the other tolls that have happened recently — 520, they got a new bridge; 167, they got a lane that basically allows you to dial in and then you can spend a little bit more if you want to get going faster; Tacoma Narrows, they got an additional bridge. It seems bizarre to take an existing bridge and an existing set of functionality and just slap a toll on it.”
Decision is left to state legislators
Councilman Fred Butler questioned the impact of tolling on businesses, and Joshua Schaer asked how tolling could affect low-income residents.
“I’m greatly concerned that if you have no free lane — even one lane across the lake — you’ve basically shut out the ability of low-income wage earners to get across,” Schaer said. “There’s people who are willing, I think, to sit in an extra three minutes, five minutes, even 20 minutes of traffic to just not pay a few dollars that they can’t afford.”
Authorization from the Legislature is required to toll additional corridors, including I-90 — a highway Stone referred to as “a lifeline for the city of Issaquah.” The state is also required to coordinate any tolling efforts on the corridor with the Federal Highway Administration.
Tolling started on the existing state Route 520 bridge almost a year ago, and Stone acknowledged the traffic changes on I-90 as motorists seek to avoid the toll. Toll rates vary by time of day and on weekends, from a $5.13 pay-by-mail rate during peak commutes to nothing during overnight hours.
“We know there’s spiking that’s happened, and also we know that trips coming in from Issaquah and from the east have probably been affected the most by the tolling across 520,” Stone said. “There are some mornings and some times, in the westbound direction especially, where we’ve seen some fairly, fairly lengthy delay.”
The transportation agency is collecting information for lawmakers to consider a decision on I-90 tolling during the 2014 legislative session. Officials plans to open the public comment period on the proposal early next year.
“The key point here, bottom line, we still have a $1.4 billion unfunded component, and that is not a small amount,” Stone said. “So, the question, obviously, to the Legislature, is how to finance that, how to fund that, and partly whether they’re interested in looking at I-90.”