A plan to collect tolls on the Interstate 90 floating bridge is raising a double whammy of concern and uncertainty across Mercer Island, not the least among its Jewish institutions.
“Tolling could make membership and access to [Congregation Herzl-Ner Tamid] cost-prohibitive and burdensome for many of our congregants,” wrote synagogue president Julie Ellenhorn in an email to members in January.
Rabbi Bernie Fox, head of the Northwest Yeshiva High School, and Judy Neuman, chief executive of the Stroum Jewish Community Center, said their institutions also would be hard hit if teachers, custodians, secretaries, groundskeepers and other employees could not afford to commute.
Nearly all the JCC’s employees live in Seattle or in the Eastside suburbs, and a number have complained that “if this were to come to pass, they can’t imagine how they could make it work financially,” Neuman said.
When the JCC moved from Seattle to the north end of Mercer Island in 1969, the main reasons were land costs and Jewish population growth east of Lake Washington. Two years later, the newly merged Herzl-Ner Tamid, the state’s largest Conservative synagogue, was built across from the JCC on East Mercer Way.
In 1992, when NYHS relocated from Seattle to the middle of the island, Fox said the deciding factor was that “it’s equally inconvenient for everyone.”
Since then, the island has become even more of a hub for the region’s increasingly far-flung Jewish community with the addition of a kosher restaurant and comprehensive kosher food departments in the Albertson’s and, more recently, QFC supermarkets.
“There’s a tremendous amount of Jewish infrastructure on the island,” Fox said. “It’s definitely going to impact the effectiveness of that infrastructure.”
Mercer Island Councilwoman Tana Senn echoed that sentiment.
“A lot of the Jewish community comes to the island for religious services and for kosher shopping and dining,” Senn said. “This is really a regional issue.”
Approximately 25 percent of Mercer Island’s 22,000 residents are believed to be Jewish. Other clusters of Jews reside in Seattle’s Northend and the Seward Park neighborhoods, and in Bellevue, Kirkland, Redmond, Issaquah and Sammamish on the Eastside. A Census Bureau report last fall listed Mercer Island as the wealthiest city in Washington State, with a median family income of $146,476, compared with $91,898 for Seattle and $62,735 nationwide.
According to estimates the JCC’s Neuman has seen, the state transportation department’s plan to collect tolls on both the East Channel and Lake Washington sections would cost daily commuters $2,000 to $3,000 a year.
With annual tuition and fees exceeding $15,000 at NYHS, Fox said, enrollment is 75 students with about 60 percent paying full fare, down from a peak of about 120 students when tuition cost about $7,000 a decade ago. Half or more come from Seattle, a third live on the island, and the rest commute from the Eastside, making carpooling unlikely, he added.
“I don’t know if it will actually come to losing students,” Fox said. “It’s difficult to predict with so much unknown.”
State officials began talking about tolls on I-90 last year, largely to make up for lower-than-anticipated toll collections on the parallel State Route 520 between Seattle and Bellevue. The new tolls would finance an overhaul of the 520 span.
Rep. Judy Clibborn, a Democrat who represents Mercer Island in the legislature and chairs the House Transportation Committee, declined to comment for this article, but in a March 6 Op-Ed for the Mercer Island Reporter, she stated that “there is no question that tolling will disproportionately affect those of us who live on Mercer Island.” However, the article makes clear that she expects tolling will be adopted and is working toward alleviating its impact on her district. Clibborn and fellow district representative Marcie Maxwell submitted a bill in the House that would seek to alleviate tolling for island residents. Sen. Steve Litzow submitted a companion bill in the Senate.
The current plan would toll only the floating bridge between Mercer Island and Seattle, leaving free passage to Bellevue, but other mainland-to-mainland or single-direction options are still on the table.
The Mercer Island City Council has voted to hire an attorney to monitor the process and represent the municipality on the issue. Tolling has by far been at the top of residents’ agenda, Senn said.
“We’re hearing so much — I would say 99.9 percent — in opposition of tolling,” she added. “There’s lots of passion behind it.”
According to Ellenhorn, more than two-thirds of those who regularly attend Mercer Island churches on average come from off the island — slightly more than the 60 percent commuting rate at Herzl. To date she said religious groups on the island have not discussed a coordinated response to the toll proposals.
A decision is probably months away, and officials have said it would likely be next year or 2015 before toll collections would begin.
Ellenhorn said the synagogue board has taken no formal position. Neuman said the same was true for the JCC.
Next to no tolls at all, Neuman said she’d probably favor a Bellevue-to-Seattle tolling option.
“Would that be a great outcome? Probably, for us [at the JCC], but I don’t know that that’s the right outcome for all of Mercer Island,” she said, “or fair and equitable for everyone.”
In any event, Neuman said she didn’t believe I-90 tolls would have a disproportionate impact on Jewish life in the region.
“I don’t think this is a Jewish community issue,” she said. “I think this is a citizen issue.”