WTF? WSDOT Never Told Transportation Commission It Was Shrinking I-90 to One Lane

The Washington State Transportation Commission, the agency that sets tolls and has the power to suspend them during huge highway projects, was never given advanced warning of WSDOT’s plan to reduce to one lane westbound I-90 for an entire week, the commission’s executive director told Seattle Weekly today.

Had they done so, then perhaps there may have been a possibility of allowing motorists to drive for free across the 520 floating bridge – at least the idea would have been broached in a meeting of the seven commissioners.

“We didn’t know about this until last week when we read about it in the media,” said WTC’s Reema Griffith. “They [WSDOT] didn’t let us know. Had we known, we might have had some discussions [on whether to suspend tolls on the 520 floating bridge.] This should have been discussed as a group months ago. Now, at this point, there’s really nothing we can do.”

Starting Friday night at 9:30, motorists heading into Seattle could face backups of ten miles or more when I-90 is compressed to one lane at Bellevue Way Southeast, just west of I-405. The lanes won’t open again for an entire week, until Friday, July 25 at 5 a.m.

The last time this kind of horror show took place was in 2009 when the state closed two lanes on the 520 bridge – and then, even though drivers were allowed to use the express lanes, there were still seven-mile backups.

Travis Phelps with the Washington State Department of Transportation told KIRO Radio that drivers could see 10-mile backups. “Worst-case scenario, plan on adding an hour to your commute,” he said.

The I-90 lane closure is happening in order to replace expansion joints that cross all westbound lanes across the East Channel Bridge, which connects Mercer Island to the Eastside.

“These things are 92-feet long, they’re embedded deeply into a concrete bridge, and they are starting to fail,” said Phelps.

OK, fine, we get that. But why not forgive – for just a week – all tolls on the the 520 bridge, the only viable alternative route?

“No, they [the commissioners] won’t be doing that,” said Griffith.

WSDOT has no authority to waive nor suspend the 520 bridge toll – only the Transportation Commission does.

And don’t hold you breath for that to happen.

The WTC’s statement on waiving the toll:

The SR 520 Bridge is being built with state gas tax dollars and revenues collected from tolls and the sale of 30-year bonds which the state is on the hook to repay according to a strict plan that does not allow for last minute changes that directly reduce anticipated revenues. The bonds sold to fund the project will be paid from the toll revenue generated and are expected to be paid off in FY 2054. The financial plan we have set forth calls for 2.5% toll rate increases each fiscal year through FY 2017 at which point there is a planned increase of 15%. Thereafter, the toll rates are not expected to increase, as long as we stick to the plan.

In order to fully fund the construction of the new bridge and to be able to repay our debt, we must adhere to the financial plan that sets the course for all toll rate changes - including reductions in the toll rates on specified holiday’s: New Year’s Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas day. To divert from this plan would be detrimental to the state’s financial standing and the financing of the new SR 520 Bridge.

Additionally, to provide a week long exemption from paying tolls on the SR 520 Bridge would result in a loss of revenue estimated to be approximately $1.3 million. This loss is not currently anticipated or planned for, and thus would impact our plan for future toll rate increases. Tolling is a zero sum game - for every free ride given means the lost revenue will have to be made up at a later date by drivers using the SR 520 Bridge. So essentially the regular, day to day users of SR 520 will end up subsidizing the “free pass” I-90 users are seeking, due to the traffic impacts of next week’s construction project. Given there are other free alternative routes available, this approach does not seem reasonable nor prudent.

Reema Griffith, meanwhile, said forgoing tolling on the 520 is probably not a solution to the expected traffic nightmare, for that bridge will be just as clogged, without or without tolling.

“There are other options,” she said.

Yeah, right, if you own a helicopter.

By the way, the Transportation Commission just happens to be meeting on Tuesday morning.

Location: Transportation Building, Commission Board Room 1D2 310 Maple Park Avenue SE, Olympia, Washington

Time: 9 a.m.

If you can’t make it, give them a call at 360-705-7070

We’re sure they’d love to hear from you.

UPDATE (Monday, July 14, 6:15 p.m.):
According to WSDOT Communications Director Lars Erickson, "WSDOT sent an alert that Reema Griffith would have received on July 1 regarding the work being done on I-90."

 
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