Purpose of I-90 tolling study
Why is tolling on I-90 being considered?
In the 2012 Transportation Budget Bill ESHB 2109, the Washington state Legislature asked WSDOT to “undertake a comprehensive environmental review of tolling Interstate 90 between I-5 and I-405 for the purposes of both managing traffic and providing funding for construction of the unfunded SR 520 from I-5 to Medina project. The environmental review must include significant outreach to potentially affected communities. The department may consider traffic management options that extend as far east as Issaquah.”
Environmental review process
What is WSDOT studying the effects of tolling I-90?
WSDOT is conducting an environmental assessment of tolling on I-90 east of Seattle, as directed by the Legislature. WSDOT and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) have determined that a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) environmental assessment will include a review of pricing, fairness, traffic and economics.
What is an environmental assessment?
An environmental assessment (EA) is a study required as part of NEPA to establish any effects, either positive or negative, from a potential project. By considering environmental effects and mitigation measures early, an EA helps inform decision making and provides opportunities for public participation. The end result will be a report that consists of a technical evaluation of tolling on I-90.
What will the EA include?
The EA will describe:
- Why tolling on I-90 is being considered.
- How tolling would be implemented and how the proposed approach was developed.
- How tolling would affect traffic on I-90, adjacent roadways and parallel routes.
- How tolling would affect those who use I-90 and surrounding communities, including low-income populations.
- Other possible environmental effects such as land use economics, energy and climate change.
- Where potential environment impacts are identified, the EA will describe what can be done to avoid, minimize or mitigate those impacts.
After scoping, are there other opportunities for the public to be involved?
In fall 2013, WSDOT will publish the EA report and make it available to the public. WSDOT will also host another series of public meetings, which will be another opportunity for people to comment on the proposed project and the report. All public comments will become part of the official record and be available to the Legislature if and when they make a decision about tolling on I-90. WSDOT will also respond to comments in the final environmental document.
Decision making process
Has a decision already been made to toll I-90?
No. In 2012, the Washington state Legislature directed WSDOT to conduct an environmental study to examine the potential effects of I‐90 tolling. The environmental process involves research, technical analysis, and extensive public outreach. All the public and stakeholder feedback will be compiled and addressed as part of the EA to be presented to the Legislature, who will make the ultimate decision on whether or not to toll I‐90.
Who decides if I‐90 will be tolled?
The decision to toll I‐90 would require multiple approvals. FHWA would have to concur, approve the EA, and sign a toll agreement with WSDOT as part of the federal Value Pricing Pilot Program requirements. In addition, the Washington state Legislature would need to pass a bill authorizing tolls on I‐90.
In addition to the Legislature, who else will have input on the decision about whether to toll I-90?
The environmental review process includes opportunities for the public, local jurisdictions and agencies to comment on the EA and its analysis. FHWA is responsible for final approval of the EA and for the toll agreement authorizing tolls on I-90. The Legislature will consult the EA to assist them in their decision to authorize tolling I-90 or not. The Washington State Transportation Commission (WSTC) is responsible for setting toll rates, exemptions, and discounts.
Is it illegal to toll I‐90, or any Interstate highway for that matter?
Interstate tolling is not illegal. In fact, approximately 2,900 miles of the Interstate highway system is currently tolled around the nation. Some sections were tolled prior to be designated an Interstate, thus grandfathered in to the current Interstate toll policy. Other sections have been authorized over the past 20 years through USDOT surface transportation legislation. Tolling I‐90 would require approval from the FHWA under the federal Value Pricing Pilot Program (VPPP), which requires variable rate tolling as a means of providing improved operation and revenue generation during peak periods. Fifteen states, including Washington, participate in FHWA’s VPPP, allowing tolls on existing facilities without reconstruction or replacement. Tolling approval from FHWA is one part of a three‐part process through which tolling would be implemented on I-90, preceded by completion of the environmental study and approval by the Washington state Legislature.
Is there a chance that, even after completing the NEPA EA, WSDOT could end up deciding that tolling I-90 is not feasible? If not, then why do you need my input?
NEPA requires the consideration of a “no build” alternative to provide baseline information about conditions in the project area if none of the build alternatives are selected for construction. Like with any WSDOT project, the I-90 tolling project is being proposed because there is a purpose and need for the project to be constructed, so it is anticipated that some form of a build alternative would be selected at the completion of the environmental process.
When going through the environmental process, there is always the potential that a no Build alternative could be selected – though it’s not common because there is a purpose and need for the project to be built. When a project is proposed, it is important that the public weighs in during scoping so that we have their input when analyzing the alternatives under consideration, the associated range of construction and permanent effects, as well as proposed mitigation measures.
Funding Improvements to I-90
Would toll revenue be used to fund projects on I-90?
The Legislature is considering Cross-Lake Washington Corridor improvements (which could include both SR 520 and I-90) and will decide where potential toll revenue would go, while taking into consideration the need to close the funding gap on SR 520. Long-term, WSDOT will continue to evaluate improvements along I-90 as far east as Issaquah as directed by the Legislature.
Why is WSDOT considering tolling one road to pay for another?
I‐90 and SR 520 are the only two highway routes across Lake Washington connecting the surrounding communities to form what WSDOT refers to as the Cross‐Lake Washington Corridor. The two bridges work in tandem, meaning traffic impacts on one bridge affect the other. Since SR 520 tolling began in 2011, traffic volumes on I‐90 have increased, serving 15,000 more vehicles a day as of December 2012. Tolls would help re‐balance traffic across these two bridges, adhering to the guiding principle that tolling should result in travel benefits for all users in the project corridor.
How would tolls be collected?
Tolling on I-90 would be collected electronically using Good To Go!, similar to how SR 520 works today.
How much would the tolls be? Who determines the toll rates?
The WSTC is responsible for recommending toll rates. The EA assumes that I‐90 tolls would be equivalent to the SR 520 variable toll rate structure. If tolling were authorized by the Legislature, the WSTC would gather input on rates from a public open house process.
Is WSDOT considering a free option for Mercer Island residents?
WSDOT is studying several different tolling scenarios related to Mercer Island’s reliance on I‐90 for access on and off the island. One option under consideration is to only toll residents between Mercer Island and Seattle. Another would only toll residents between Mercer Island and Bellevue. Those two ideas would allow Mercer Island residents to travel off of the island without paying a toll. A third option would charge a partial toll rate for trips that are only to and from Mercer Island, with the full rate charged for a cross‐lake trip. Other potential options under consideration include scenarios where I‐90 users only pay a toll for the entire cross‐lake trip, allowing free trips to and from Mercer Island, and an option where Mercer Island residents can use their Good To Go! account to choose free travel to either the east or the west.
If you toll I‐90, can you reduce the SR 520 toll rates?
The SR 520 toll rate structure is set according to the financial plan for the bridge replacement and the associated bond issuance schedule, thus it is unlikely that SR 520 toll rates would be reduced—especially in the near term – as toll revenue needs to cover the debt repayment. The WSTC reviews and recommends toll rates that will generate sufficient revenue to cover costs and debt repayment at the rate of inflation.
How would tolling affect use of the center roadway?
I-90 tolling is independent from both the I-90 Two-Way Transit and HOV Operations project and Sound Transit's East Link project. Timing for the closure of vehicle traffic and transfer of the center roadway is dependent on Sound Transit’s overall East Link program schedule and is currently scheduled for 2016. The center roadway will be tolled if it is open to vehicle traffic.
Is WSDOT studying I‐90 tolls because there’s less traffic on SR 520 since tolling started?
No. Traffic and revenue from tolling on SR 520 are meeting forecasts and are expected to raise more than $1 billion for the SR 520 floating bridge replacement. There is still a $1.4 billion gap in funding SR 520 construction between I‐5 and the west side of the floating bridge, with the SR 520 program being funded and constructed in stages.
What is the timeline?
- Public Scoping Comment Period – Jan. 22 to Feb. 22
- Environmental Assessment Public Hearing – Nov. 2013
- Environmental Assessment Findings (Environmental Decision) – Early 2014
- Legislative Toll Authorization Needed – 2014
- Toll Implementation – 2015/2016
SR 520 traffic diversion
What is the impact on I-90 from tolling the SR 520 bridge?
By the end of 2012, daily volume was approximately 11 percent higher on the I-90 floating bridge, compared to previous years. Some of this increase has been attributed to tolling on SR 520 and traffic diverting to I-90. In comparison to before SR 520 tolling started, I-90 travel times between Issaquah and Seattle are four minutes longer on average during the peak travel times. By introducing tolling to I-90, WSDOT would reduce traffic congestion and provide reliable travel conditions in the I-90 corridor. Balancing SR 520 and I-90 traffic by tolling both bridges is part of WSDOT’s Cross-Lake Washington corridor goals.