A hairdresser I know had to quit her job in Bellevue because she couldn’t afford the state Route 520 tolls. “Oh, yeah, the Lexus bridge. Not driving that one anymore.” 

Luckily, she works for a chain so she was able to move her job to Queen Anne.

How many more people will lose their jobs because they can’t afford the Interstate 90 tolls to drive to work on Mercer Island or to the Eastside?

Gardeners, housecleaners, baristas, store clerks, bank tellers, nannies and caregivers. Underpaid “service” workers will be effectively quarantined on either side of the great divide. Then who will work the car wash?

Imagine for a moment that these are real people, not characters in a gritty Studs Terkel story or a heartwarming Woody Guthrie lyric. These are real people who have been choosing between rent and heat for a long time.

Families have been nickel-and-dimed down to their last pennies.

Subsidized or free lunches for King County students are up to 37 percent, according to Northwest Harvest. 

The Stranger reports our regressive state sales tax hits the lowest 20 percent at 16.9 percent. A $10 haircut has become a high-priced, luxury-ticket item for many. Even Walmart is wondering where the shoppers are.

Being thrifty is not a “living simply” lifestyle choice but a matter of simply living. The next time you are in Trader Joe’s look to your left and then look to your right and count to six. Every sixth person is receiving food benefits in King County. Not everyone can simply reach for a credit card. Not everyone has a choice to “drive around” the problem when choosing between gas and toilet paper.

An occasional generous employer may offer to cover the tolls for their day-care worker or dog walker. That’s a serious chunk of change to keep a minimum-wage worker. And how many workers are part-time or cash-only or have several jobs spread here and there over the week. Who will pay the toll for them?

 

Economic costs

Some say cars are a polluting, expensive nuisance and good riddance. But buses and carpools are only a good substitute when your schedules mesh exactly. Or you don’t need to travel to multiple jobs in a day. Or you don’t need to transport your lawn mower or chainsaw. Or you don’t work the night shift.

The state might make some money in tolls but lose much more in payroll and other taxes because of lost work or displaced workers. Then the state might need to pay out even more in unemployment benefits.

If somehow a worker bee manages to pay the tolls by scrimping and saving, that’s money not being spent at Safeway or Bartell’s. Oops, more lost sales-tax revenue. Tolling I-90 could be a Darth Vader death blow to the region’s economy.

Tolls are money flying far, far away into the black hole of the state budget, money that is no longer circulating in our community. The gas-station guy, the dry-cleaner gal and the pet-shop clerk all lose out. No need to hire another burger flipper if no one is coming into your place to eat a burger, with fries or not.

 

A common cause

We’ve already seen a dramatic drop in traffic on SR 520 due to tolling. Where did all the cars go? They went to I-90, now, in effect, a monopoly on east-west traffic.

Tolling I-90 would be a great foolishness. We are already critically split by the digital divide. But with a little common sense and respect for the working stiffs, we can stop tolling and work to keep the roads between our neighborhoods open.

Imagine for a second moment the burden to cover the SR 520 funding shortfall is equally shared. Instead of Joe the plumber plummeting ever closer to financial disaster, imagine if our world-famous corporate neighbors stepped up and became good citizens. Imagine all the corporate people paying their fare share.

For it’s not the one Lexus owner who will carry the burden of I-90 tolls but the 10 pickup drivers coming to mow the lawns or paint the garage. Those 10 pickup drivers may not believe it, but they do have some power to stop the tolling: Ten phone calls are more than one.

Imagine the Lexus owner finally making common cause with his neighbor, the car-wash guy.

CANDACE BULLARD is a Queen Anne writer, poet, teacher and community volunteer. To comment on this guest column, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.