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Originally published Thursday, January 29, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Feds OK with I-90 tolls to help pay for new 520 bridge

If politicians in Olympia decide to charge tolls on the Interstate 90 Floating Bridge to help replace the neighboring Highway 520 bridge, that's OK with the feds.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

If politicians in Olympia decide to charge tolls on the Interstate 90 Floating Bridge to help replace the neighboring Highway 520 bridge, that's OK with the feds.

The Federal Highway Administration has told the state Department of Transportation (DOT) that both bridges could charge tolls, in a letter released Wednesday.

Tolls, charged for more than 30 years, would rise and fall based on the time of day, with the goals of encouraging transit and reducing congestion, if I-90 enters the federal Value Pricing Pilot Program.

The state hopes to collect enough in tolls to fill a $2 billion funding gap for a new six-lane, $4 billion-plus Highway 520 crossing of Lake Washington. Drivers would pay electronically, much like most motorists now do to cross the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

A state toll-study group Wednesday issued its final report, demonstrating that only by putting tolls on both bridges could Washington find enough cash to rebuild the 520 bridge, which is at risk of sinking in a severe windstorm or quake.

However, there's no clear sign this year whether the Legislature and Gov. Chris Gregoire have the nerve or desire to do so.

A year ago, legislative leaders punted the issue and promised to make a tolling decision this session.

They must act this year or risk losing $154 million in federal aid for toll equipment, bus purchases, park-and-ride stations and ferries. Procrastination also could delay replacement of the bridge itself.

I-90 tolls are opposed by the nearby cities of Mercer Island and Newcastle. Several other cities, and a majority of people in a DOT phone survey, support a charge on both bridges. Bellevue wants any I-90 tolls to be lower than those on 520.

Current state law forbids tolling one highway to pay for another. The Legislature would have to change the law, and propose a toll strategy, before Washington could apply for federal permission for I-90 tolls.

The state hopes to complete a bridge by 2016, but there's no agreement yet on the interchange to be built in Seattle, through Foster Island and the Montlake neighborhood.

The toll-study group — Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond, Executive Director Bob Drewel of the Puget Sound Regional Council, and state Transportation Commission member Dick Ford — did not propose a toll rate, but studied 10 scenarios. Some examples:

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• The 520 would be tolled an average $2.16 each way (in 2007 dollars) with a peak rate of $3.25, starting next year. Similar toll rates would take effect on I-90 in 2016. This scenario would raise enough in tolls to get financing for $2.5 billion of the bridge project.

• If tolls are charged on both bridges, but not until 2016, the rate would be about the same — enough for $2.2 billion in financing.

• A lower toll of an average of $1.70 each way could take effect if both bridges charge tolls next year, with a peak rate of $2.95. That would provide enough revenue for $2.4 billion in financing.

• Newly tolled high-occupancy lanes would open on I-90, perhaps all the way east to Issaquah, so solo drivers could pay to enter the car-pool lane. That income, combined with 520 tolls, could result in $1.8 billion in financing.

The federal letter said excess toll money could be used to pay for transit, if it's used for the Lake Washington corridor.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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