Officials have been hinting at it for years, but a Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT) study in the works could make tolling on Interstate 90 bridges over Lake Washington and across Mercer Island all but inevitable.
Tolling on the State Route 520 floating bridge began about a year ago and transportation officials have been closely monitoring two factors: the routes that drivers are now using and the overall tab (and deficit) for replacing the aging 520 Bridge. In response, the State Legislature last session asked for a new environmental study to review the affects of tolling on I-90 between Interstate 5 and Interstate 405.
“What we will be doing in the new year, 2013, is studying the tolling of I-90,” said Craig Stone, assistant secretary for the WSDOT Toll Division.
A WSDOT-proposed time-line of the study has planned public scoping meetings in early 2013 and a complete Environmental Impact Study by early 2014, which could then allow approval of potential tolls in 2014. The state could then begin collecting the charge in 2015 or 2016.
The overall cost of the 520 replacement project is estimated at $4.128 billion, a decline from $4.6 billion, but the state still needs to find $1.4 billion. Meanwhile, WSDOT's Stone said at a Mercer Island public meeting last month that congestion has increased on Interstate 5, Interstate 90 and State Route 522 as drivers avoid tolls on SR 520.
Traffic on I-90 has increased, on average, 13 percent over pre-520 toll levels, and I-90 travel times are three minutes longer on average during the peaks, said Stone. The state can't afford to come up with the rest of the money by asking the federal government for earmarks.
"The days of 90 percent of federal dollars coming in to finance highways in our state are basically over," he said.
WSDOT spokesperson Michell Mouton pledged that no decision has yet been made on whether or not to toll I-90. But the transportation agency must carry out the wishes of the State Legislature, which s them to perform an "environmental assessment" and engage the public in communities that border Lake Washington.
"It's not just tolling for tolling's sake," she said. "We have to look at tolling on I-90 to help with (the 520 Floating Bridge) ... one affects the other. People will have the opportunity to engage and provide input to the study. We're looking at tolling as a strategy."
Mouton also told Patch that no decision had been made on changing access to HOV lanes to and from Mercer Island, which currently allow single-occupancy vehicle access on the I-90 express lanes.
WSDOT's Craig Stone will return to Mercer Island City Hall with more information on I-90 tolling and traffic data — in addition to presentations on WSDOT’s I-90 Two-Way Transit Project, and the Sound Transit East Link Light Rail Transit Project — for City Council's regular meeting at 7 p.m. on Jan. 7, 2013.