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Originally published Wednesday, February 27, 2013 at 4:00 PM

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Op-ed: Tolling I-90 bridge is the wrong approach

Just because the state can toll does not mean it should, writes guest columnist James Windle.

Special to The Times

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MOST would agree Washington state’s transportation infrastructure is an important investment. The difficult question is who is going to pay for it.

The House Democrats in Olympia proposed a major transportation plan last week that included a number of tax increases, including a state gas-tax increase of 10 cents per gallon over five years. The plan omitted how to complete the replacement of the Highway 520 bridge, as well as the controversial proposal to pay for 520 by tolling the Interstate 90 bridges across Lake Washington.

Tolling I-90 is the wrong approach.

The state can seek authority to toll I-90 and the incomplete financing plan for 520 certainly requires additional revenue. Only $2.7 billion of $4.1 billion is funded. However, just because Olympia can toll does not mean it should. I-90 should remain, as long as possible, the toll-free commuter and business corridor to access Seattle from the east.

First, tolling I-90 to bail out the $1.4 billion shortfall for 520 is a political foul. The financial plan for 520 closely examined the two-bridge toll scenario, but the decision to start construction never included an explicit commitment to the two-bridge toll financial plan. Had the public known this, then the politics and scope of the 520 project might have been different.

Second, an I-90 toll would be a mandatory tax because the topography of the immediate Seattle-area creates unique transportation bottlenecks across Lake Washington on the I-90 and 520 bridges. The only alternatives are to travel south on I-405, or north using Highway 522 to take I-5 into Seattle. These are much slower. As a practical matter, I-90 and 520 are the only options for daily commuters and businesses. These commuters and businesses did not include a mandatory tax in their decision on where to work and live.

Third, a toll on I-90 would be a regressive tax. A toll might be an annoyance for those who can afford it; it is a tall latte ($3.59) each way at peak rush hour. The unemployed, underemployed, or small businesses, however, do not have the flexibility in their budgets to pay a toll every time they cross Lake Washington.

The 15,000 users who shifted to I-90 after tolling went into effect on 520 will have no alternative with two-bridge tolling. They will be joined by some percentage of regular I-90 users who cannot afford a toll. The result is serious financial hardship and limiting the mobility of those who depend on it to make ends meet.

Finally, the biggest concern with an I-90 toll is its potential effect on the Seattle and Eastside economies. The commercial significance of 520 pales in comparison to I-90. Considerable commercial traffic from Eastern Washington and beyond uses the I-90 approach to Seattle and I-5, including agriculture and other major sectors. Small businesses constantly travel between the Eastside and Seattle, and a two-bridge toll would raise the cost of doing business. An independent economic impact study would be valuable in addressing this concern.

The 520 project has to be completed. No one wants to see a repeat of 1990 when the Lacey V. Murrow (Mercer Island) floating bridge sunk to the bottom of the lake during a storm. Yet, until the economy improves further, tolls must be implemented carefully. The 520 budget shortfall is a difficult problem with no easy solution. Still, taxing every commuter and business crossing Lake Washington as much as $7 per day is the wrong approach. I-90 should remain toll-free.

James Windle lives part time in Snoqualmie Pass. He is working as a federal employee but the views expressed here are his own.

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