For the last decade, I have worked to connect the eastside to the regional light rail system being built by Sound Transit. I supported funding for light rail via the ST2 ballot measure which was approved by voters in 2008. Through 2015, as both an elected official and an appointed Sound Transit Board member, I worked on behalf of the City of Bellevue to plan the light rail alignment and to adopt appropriate plans and regulations to take advantage of the opportunities presented by this major regional transportation investment. Now, as a County Councilmember, I represent much of the eastside, including Mercer Island, as construction of Eastlink light rail begins in earnest. Through it all, I have remained a strong proponent of the importance of providing true mass transit to our growing eastside.
The benefits of rail transit do come with impacts, and these must be addressed in each jurisdiction where we build and operate light rail. We did this when I represented Bellevue, and it has been done in every jurisdiction where Sound Transit has planned and constructed light rail. Mercer Island is no different in this regard — there are impacts of this major capital project and those impacts must be identified and addressed.
Historically, regional governments and agencies foresaw the need for transit on I-90, as well as some of the major impacts to Mercer Island. The cities of Seattle, Bellevue and Mercer Island, Sound Transit, King County/Metro and Washington State negotiated an agreement in 1976 that designated two lanes of the I-90 bridge to be “designed for and permanently committed to transit use.” In a 2004 amendment to this agreement, the parties further set out their desired configuration to allow for dedicated transit, two-way HOV and general purpose lanes. This configuration is sometimes referred to as “R8A” because it was selected from a long list of options considered by the parties. In these agreements, the parties recognized the unique mobility issues posed by the fact that I-90 is the only road on or off Mercer Island and made provisions for Islanders to drive in the HOV lanes, even if they were driving alone. The 2004 amendment also states that “any loss of mobility to and from Mercer Island . . . shall be identified and satisfactorily addressed . . .”
Efforts to satisfy these agreements have been ongoing for many years. However, before the parties could reach an agreed resolution, the Federal Highway Administration took the position last summer that single-occupancy vehicles cannot use HOV lanes. Despite a number of entreaties to change their position, FHWA has made it clear that federal rules do not allow Mercer Islanders’ contractual, historic access to HOV lanes to continue when the new outer bridge lanes open later this year.
This late-breaking monkey wrench rendered already complicated negotiations even more challenging, especially coming just a few months before the expected closure of the I-90 center lanes for construction. The sudden change in expectations is upsetting by itself, but the timing makes it very difficult to find alternative solutions and stay on the current schedule. Had we known in 2004 that the federal government would not agree to allow continued Island access to the HOV lanes, a different alternative to R8A might have been found. It is far too late for that kind of major adjustment now. Thus, though it is unfortunate, I understand why the City of Mercer Island felt compelled to sue Sound Transit and WSDOT, and to adopt broad land use moratoria in an attempt to temporarily stop the Eastlink light rail construction. Although I voted against it, I also understand why Sound Transit felt compelled to pursue counter actions in order to keep the light rail project moving. I voted “no” on the action to authorize litigation by Sound Transit because I believe that we have not yet exhausted our options to resolve the legitimate issues on both sides. For example, State Representative Judy Clibborn has today introduced legislation (HB 2129) which could result in Islanders maintaining SOV access to the Island Crest Way ramps to I-90. If successful, this would solve one of the biggest outstanding problems driving the litigation. Likewise, finding solutions to allow Islanders reasonable access to existing bus transit and future light rail transit should be achievable with enough focus and public attention. We can and should address the legitimate local impacts of the Eastlink project to Mercer Island while achieving the benefits the Eastlink project promises to the rest of the eastside and the region.
Litigation will now proceed, but it should not stop attempts to resolve these challenges by agreement. I will continue to advocate for mutually acceptable solutions and welcome any comments or suggestions toward that end. Please do not hesitate to contact my office at email@example.com or 206-477-1006 to discuss these or any other issues.