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Thursday, February 2, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Toll Plan For Highway 522 Met With Loud Opposition -- Hundreds Urge DOT To Scrap Proposal

MONROE - They navigated Highway 522 with their seat belts fastened snug and their wallets pinched tight.

And when they pulled off the accident-plagued highway to share their thoughts on a toll road, their mouths opened wide.

For more than an hour last night, a standing-room-only crowd of several hundred people spoke, shouted, cheered and jeered in an attempt to convince Transportation Secretary Sid Morrison that a proposal to turn the Monroe-Woodinville Highway (522) into a toll road didn't have the community's support.

Usually restrained, though sometimes hostile, the crowd represented the grass-roots opposition that is mounting against several Puget Sound highway projects the state wants to fund through partnership with private companies.

In the case of Highway 522, that partnership, at least according to early plans, would result in a toll road that could catch local drivers coming and going.

"You never even asked us if we liked the concept," said Laura Hartman, one of several members of a community group that spoke against the proposal at a meeting at Echo Falls Country Club.

"Why are we the only rural area in the state that has to support an urban toll road?"

Highway 522 - a winding, two-lane highway that carries heavy, often fast-moving traffic - has been home to 40 fatalities and 1,100 accidents in the past 15 years.

Community members have long lobbied to make the road safer. But those in the audience last night were outraged by the concept of tolls.

Any money for a new road, they said, should come from gas and motor-vehicle excise taxes.

"We paid with our hard-earned money for every other damn road in this state," argued Chris Clifford, who's also actively fighting the proposal to include a toll as part of the improvements to the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge corridor.

In 1993, the Legislature passed a public-private partnership bill to shift road maintenance and construction costs from taxpayers to the private sector. The companies would raise the cash and build and maintain the roads. In return, the companies would keep proceeds generated through tolls.

In the case of Highway 522, the road would be expanded from two to four lanes, interchanges would be added, a second bridge would be constructed at the Snohomish River and two toll booths would be built at each end of the 10 1/2-mile stretch.

Last week, in the face of vocal public opposition, Morrison scrapped one of six privatization proposals: a plan to widen Highway 18, a cutoff from Interstate 5 at Federal Way to the Snoqualmie Pass Highway near North Bend.

Last night Morrison was quick to point out that decision had more to do with the lack of performance from the private developer than with the opposition to the project.

So far, he said, the developer for the Highway 522 project, Interwest Management Group Inc. of Arizona, has tried to gauge and cultivate the support of the community.

As long as they continue to do that, "the rules say we have to negotiate an agreement," Morrison said. He stressed to the crowd that he is merely implementing the laws. Laws, he pointed out, that were passed unanimously by the Legislature.

"That's why we fired them" in November, one man shouted back.

Opponents said Morrison was wrong about Interwest's performance. Residents said they've been kept in the dark about plans, and they said their views have been misrepresented to the DOT.

A petition calling for safety measures following the deaths of two boys walking along the road last year did not authorize a toll road, opponents said. And last night they handed Morrison a new petition against a toll road with more than 15,000 signatures.

The only person who raised a voice in favor of the project, against the hundreds gathered and the thousands signed, was Interwest President Richard Carr.

Carr told stories of his childhood in South Dakota, when private enterprise built infrastructure.

In recent decades, the government has funded and directed highway projects. Now, it's time again for private industry to take over, he said.

"We all became addicted to the milk of the breast of government," Carr said.

The response, from the public was a volley of disbelieving giggles and none-too-friendly suggestions to "go back to Arizona."

Published Correction Date: 02/03/95 - This Story Reported That Two Teenagers Were Hit And Killed Last January While Walking Along Highway 522 Near Monroe. They Were In A Car When They Were Killed In A Head-On Collision.

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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