Proposed bridge toll bills are not the changes people demanded

When the ribbon was snipped on a new floating bridge connecting Montlake to the eastside in 1963, a toll was collected to pay for its construction. It ranged over time from 25 to 35 cents and was lifted in 1979 when the bridge was paid off ahead of schedule. The I-90 bridge was never tolled, not when first opened in 1940, not when its companion bridge opened in 1963 and not when the new I-90 opened in the early 1990s.

Some local legislators would now like to change all that.

Judy Clibborn, who represents Mercer Island in the legislature, has introduced a bill (HB 2211) that would authorize tolls on the 520 floating bridge to raise money for its eventual replacement. She is joined by Bellevue state Rep. Deb Eddy and new House member Marcie Maxwell, also of Mercer Island. The tolls would start next January and cost $3.25 in one direction, which would cost daily commuters $136 per month, or about $1,638 per year. The tax would rise to $3.80 once the bridge opens.

Over in the Senate, Ed Murray, who represents Capitol Hill and the University District in Seattle has teamed up with Mercer Island Sen. Fred Jarrett to introduce legislation (SB 5493) to create yet another regional transportation authority and impose tolls on BOTH 520 and I-90 to raise money for 520’s replacement. They contend that both bridges are really one trans-lake corridor, that a toll on just one bridge would drive traffic to the other, and that if both bridges are tolled, it strengthens the bridge’s financing.

Which bill deserves your support? Um, neither.

Tolls are a way of life on the East Coast because that’s how they finance their road system. Here in Washington, our roads — old and new — are paid for with the gasoline tax, which is now among the nation’s highest. No one in Olympia is talking about trimming the gas tax in exchange for tolls. The tolls are an add-on.

We haven’t previously allowed tolls for bridges before they’ve opened, let alone before construction on them has even begun. But that’s what the bill sponsored by Reps Clibborn, Eddy and Maxwell would do. Supposedly this is all about funding the new bridge, but the federal government has dangled money in front of lawmakers in exchange for early tolling to see if it cuts usage, so there’s apparently a social engineering angle involved as well.

As for the Senate bill, it would require I-90 commuters to pay a toll for a bridge they don’t even and may never drive on. So both bills, while appearing to be in conflict, share a common objective: expanding the grounds on which a toll can be imposed on you for driving.

At a time when the economy has tanked and people are watching their net worth plummet; at a time when property taxes are rising as property values are tumbling; and at a time when the gas tax is sky-high and car tabs are about to be raised, it is stunningly insensitive for lawmakers to try and tax commuters an additional $136 a month to drive to and from the west side of Lake Washington on either or both bridges. Longer commutes AND higher taxes? I don’t think this is the “change” people were demanding at the polls last November.