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Updated Monday, February 11, 2013 at 11:31 PM

Activists revive group to fight I-90 bridge tolls

By Bob Young
Seattle Times staff reporter

Two Mercer Island women are leading a grass-roots lobbying effort against tolls on the Interstate 90 bridge.

Lisa Belden and Eva Zemplenyi started their politicking in 2008 when they first got wind of state officials discussing I-90 tolls.

They registered as co-chairs of their No Toll on I-90 group with state officials and quickly collected $7,635 in contributions. Three couples and one individual on Mercer Island gave at least $500 to the volunteer cause, but most of the donors contributed $50 or less.

Belden and Zemplenyi spent more than $4,000 on printing and mailing, but then their lobbying group went dormant after their state representative, Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, said in 2009 that tolling the I-90 bridge “isn’t on the table and it won’t be.”

The two activists revived their group last month when the prospect of I-90 tolls resurfaced. They’ve raised an additional $1,600, put out yard signs, created a website (www.notolloni90.org) urging people to contact state officials, and have drafted petitions and form letters for people to sign and send.

They’ve listed 13 reasons for opposing tolls, most of which concern the economic impacts. They say a toll amounts to a “penalty tax” for living, working, going to school or doing business on Mercer Island.

Assuming a $7 round-trip fee, tolling would cost each family that makes daily trips across the bridge $1,750 a year, they estimate.

Belden also is concerned the state will extend tolls on other highways, such as Interstate 405.

“This is just a gorgeous area, and if the state is saying we have to pay to move around and enjoy it I’m just totally against that,” said Belden, 61, an attorney who said she’s handled only pro-bono cases for years. “I’m basically retired from making money as an attorney,” she said.

Another complaint: Users of the existing I-90 bridge, already paid for, shouldn’t be asked to now pay a toll day after day, possibly forever, to fund construction of another bridge, the Highway 520 crossing of Lake Washington.

Belden, who lost a bid for Mercer Island City Council in 2005 by 400 votes, wants to involve Bellevue, Seattle and other communities in the campaign. But because Mercer Island is “in the middle of things” geographically, relatively small, and people there tend to be politically active, she said, it is leading the opposition.

The most high-profile issue Belden had previously worked on was a campaign to keep Mercer Islanders’ ability to use I-90 carpool lanes regardless of whether they had passengers.

Zemplenyi could not be reached for comment.

According to state records, Belden and Zemplenyi have made only a few political contributions themselves, with their most recent donations being $125 from Zemplenyi to Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, and $100 from Belden to his opponent, Republican Rob McKenna.

Belden said her no-toll group may try to seek bigger contributions and corporate sponsorships, perhaps from companies who rely on I-90 for business. There are no limits on donations to grass-roots lobbying groups.

“We’ll let the movement take us where it goes,” Belden said.

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or byoung@seattletimes.com


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