The residents of Mercer Island have a pretty sweet deal. They live in an emerald castle of sorts, surrounded by a moat, which keeps the riffraff out and property values high. They have a relatively short commute to Seattle OR Bellevue. They have a bridge across said moat paid for by federal and state taxpayers in both directions. Finally, they have free access to the HOV lane for their single-occupancy vehicles! All in all, it’s a helluva place to settle and raise a family if you happen to earn three times the U.S. median household income.
But alas, all is not well on the emerald isle. Tolls are coming. What?! That’s not what’s supposed to happen! In fact, it’s precisely backwards: the bridge is supposed to keep people out, not keep the islanders locked in! They took the beautiful Castle on a Cloud and turned it into… Alcatraz!
Alas, the moat giveth, the moat taketh away. But I, for one, am at least somewhat sympathetic to the plight of our island-bound friends (soul mates, as they are, in our 206 area code). These folks bought houses under the (perhaps naïve) assumption that they’d have permanent, subsidized access to the mainland in perpetuity and now the rules are being changed. What, if anything, should we do about it?
The easiest thing to do would be to raise the gas tax and pay for the bridge without tolls. Since that’s apparently off the table, Mercer Islanders have come up with some of their own solutions, like giving themselves perpetual free (or subsidized) access on and off the island. That doesn’t really seem right or fair, but there are other mitigation steps we might consider.
For example, tolling I-90 probably means tolling one of the two bridges on either side of Mercer Island – the west bridge between Seattle and MI, or the East Bridge between MI and Bellevue. Toll the Eastern half, and you make it expensive for MI residents to drive to Bellevue, where transit access isn’t awesome. Toll the West side, and you’ll have a crush of Eastsiders dumping their cars at the over-capacity MI park-and-ride. As it is, half the P&R users live off-island. In either case, though, there’s one toll-free escape hatch off the island.
On first blush, tolling the West side seems like the winner to me: Mercer Islanders can get to and from Bellevue for free by car, but if they want to come into Seattle, then they’ll either have to pay a toll or use transit.
What to do about the overcrowded park-and-ride? Expanding it again is probably out of the question. Pricing the spots would be a worthwhile initiative, but my guess is that it would still fill up even with a modest charge (and an immodest charge would be efficient but politically untenable).
An alternative solution might be to build a second Park and Ride mid-island, in the vicinity of Island Park Elementary, to pick a random spot. Such a P&R would likely be too inconvenient for Bellevue and Seattle users, but would provide islanders with peak bus access to Seattle and the U-District via the 204/205 (with increased service hours) or transfer at the North end of the island.
Like any major change, there will be some winners and losers with tolling, but people will eventually adapt. Parents will opt to take their kid to the Tae Kwon Do class on the island as opposed to the one in Factoria. Some trip chaining will occur. More businesses will open up on-island. Salaries for workers on the island will probably have to increase. And life will go on.
Update 2/4/03 8:25 PM: Ron Judd gives MI residents what for in the Seattle Times, making my post look calm and measured by comparison.