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Was tolling agency really in the dark about upcoming I-90 closures?

KIRO Radio's Dori Monson is having a hard time believing or understanding that the agency responsible for tolling in Washington didn't know there was a major road closure coming up. (WSDOT photo)

The agency that sets and manages the tolls in Washington state told The Seattle Weekly on Monday that they were never given advance notice of the I-90 lane closures beginning Friday that is predicted to cause 10-mile backups.

“We didn’t know about this until last week when we read about it in the media,” Reema Griffith, with the Washington Transportation Commission, told Seattle Weekly’s Ellis Conklin.

The Washington Transportation Commission would have been the agency that could have suspended tolls on 520 during the week of the I-90 lane closures. But apparently, they didn’t know about it, and they said now it’s too late.

“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,” Griffith told Conklin.

But on Monday evening, KING 5 said the Washington State Department of Transportation shared an email with them that showed an email warning of the impending closure was sent to a long list of people, including Griffith, on July 1.

KING 5 reports that then Griffith’s story seemed to change: “Griffith appeared to change her story, telling KING 5 that the commission was made aware of the I-90 lane closures a couple of weeks ago and directing us to the commission’s official statement regarding the impact of suspending tolls on the 520 bridge for a full week.”

KIRO Radio’s Dori Monson asked Conklin whether he felt like he’d been lied to when Griffith initially said she hadn’t been made aware of the closure. He said he wouldn’t necessarily characterize it as a lie.

“I haven’t followed up with Reema Griffiths,” says Conklin. “I don’t know whether or not she received that notification and it was in her inbox or email and perhaps she didn’t see it at all. I don’t know.”

“She’s telling me she didn’t know anything was happening until she read about it in the media a week ago,” said Conklin. “So I don’t know who is telling the truth here, whether or not she’s confused, whether or not in fact WSDOT did inform the Washington Transportation Commission as it claims it has.”

Either way, he told Monson it seems like it could be indicative of a serious communication problem.

“I’ve never seen such miscommunication and lack of coordination between two major agencies that should be working hand in glove to make life somewhat more bearable for the motorists and the commuters in King County and the Seattle area,” says Conklin, adding that even if WSDOT did notify them July 1, that might not be enough time.

“That would have probably left very little time, if no time, for the seven commissioners that comprise the Washington Transportation Commission to gather as a group and say, hey why not suspend the tolls on the 520 bridge during this one week of horror.”

The Washington Transportation Commission rejected requests for an interview on The Dori Monson Show, but Washington Department of Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson agreed to discuss the situation with Dori.

“What’s the story here?” Dori asked.

“We work very closely with the Washington Transportation Commission on a daily basis. Our staff are in constant communication and they have a very difficult job, a very important job in terms of setting the rates for tolling and the ferries, and we take a lot of their policy initiative and their policy work and implement it so we’re constantly working very closely with them,” said Peterson.

But Monson said it seems like the WTC was trying to lay the blame on WSDOT. “Did you take offense at the fact that they tried to put this on you in this Weekly story yesterday?”

“No,” said Peterson. “I think that it’s easy to miss or forget in the deluge of information that we all get these days, and we’re moving on and completing the business that we need to do on behalf of the traveling public.”

Monson asked if Peterson thought that the WTC should be suspending the tolls on 520 in attempts to help mitigate the severe backups that are expected.

“It’s really a question of where the money would come from then to pay the bills,” said Peterson, “because WSDOT actually pays the bills, so we have a fiduciary responsibility to pay for the improvements that are being finished up right now on 520.”

“Really, it’s the taxpayers who pay the bills,” said Monson. “I was told you’d lose $1.3 million in tolls if you opened it up for free for the week. But I’m thinking the taxpayers, who are sitting in a predicted 10-mile backup, they’re going to lose tens of millions in productivity from a traffic jam, wouldn’t it make financial sense for the taxpayers who pay the bills to give them a little relief that week?”

“If and when we have that conversation, I’m completely open to it,” said Peterson. “The Department of Transportation, we would need guidance from the legislature of how to then find other revenues to cover that expense because those bills need to get paid.”

Monson suggested another source they could go to for guidance. “Wouldn’t this state run a lot better if you just turned to me for guidance?” This got a good laugh from Peterson.

The Dori Monson Show has reached out to the WTC to see if there remains any possibility tolls could be suspended, but as of now they are standing by their previous statement that says they must adhere to their financial plan that sets the course for toll rate changes and that they can’t afford to lose an estimated $1.3 million in tolls from that week. Read the full statement in Chris Sullivan’s report on the upcoming closure.

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