Moving remarks at Sound Transit Open House

September 27, 2015 | by Erin Sirianni

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A speaker at Sound Transit's Open House on Sept. 24th

A speaker at Sound Transit’s Open House on Sept. 24th

Last Thursday, September 24th, I was one of over 200 attendees at Sound Transit’s Open House at the Mercer Island Community & Event Center. It was the kick-off event of a “listening tour” Sound Transit is hosting to hear Islander concerns about the East Link light rail expansion.

Listening is a good practice, and I hope Sound Transit is sincere in its efforts. It was a good listening experience for me as well. Over 30 people spoke during the public comment period of the event, and of the many excellent comments made, the first speaker of the night was perhaps the most timely and moving.

Earlier in the day, a “Ride the Ducks” vehicle crashed on the Aurora Bridge in Seattle, an accident that has now claimed five lives with 13 victims currently at Harborview Medical Center. Four are still in intensive care.

Studio portrait of Benjamin Ben Starnes.

Dr. Benjamin Starnes | Photo credit: University of Washington

Dr. Benjamin Starnes approached the microphone and in moments provided meaning to the word “mobility” – the buzz word I keep hearing on Mercer Island when people are talking about the transportation changes we face ahead.

With Dr. Starnes permission, I’ve shared a portion of his statement below:

My name is Dr. Benjamin Starnes and I have lived on Mercer Island for 9 years. My wife and I chose to raise our kids here because Mercer Island is a great community, but also because of its close proximity to my job. You see, I am the Chief of Vascular Surgery for Harborview and all of UW Medicine. When you hear those Medivac helicopters bringing in a car accident or gunshot victim, I’m the guy sprinting from my kid’s soccer game to hop in the car and get to Harborview as quickly as possible. The tragic events that transpired on the Aurora Bridge today should wake everyone up. If those students were your kids, would you want me stuck in traffic on the bridge?

Prior to coming to Seattle, I spent 15 years of honorable service in the United States Army. I’ve served on the front lines in Kosovo and Iraq and even treated casualties at the Pentagon on September the 11th, 2001.   People in my line of work don’t scare easily. But was does scare me is the prospect of losing mobility. I don’t want someone to die because I’m sitting in traffic.

As Dr. Starnes makes clear, the mobility of the first responders who live on Mercer Island is critical. Additionally, our own mobility in accessing health care is critical. And what the accident on the Aurora Bridge also teaches us is that the safety of our roadways is also critical.

The Aurora Bridge is the narrowest six-lane bridge in Washington state and does not have a center barrier that divides oncoming traffic. The Washington State Department of Transportation conducted a safety study in 2003 that proposed widening the lanes and adding a median barrier to prevent cross-over and head-on traffic accidents. However, the recommendation was not pursued due to lack of funding.

The lanes of I-90 will become narrower as well to accommodate the HOV lanes soon to be displaced from the center lanes by the Light Rail. As Dr. Starnes noted in our email exchange, the current 10-foot shoulder will be reduced to two feet, posing an increased risk to anyone using the pedestrian walkway.

While the Light Rail may be another welcome mode of public transportation, anyone who wants to walk, run, or bike across I-90 – as a commute or for recreation – may be putting themselves in harm’s way.

If Sound Transit takes away anything from the events of September 24th, I hope that it will put the health and safety of its constituents first.

For a full re-cap of Sound Transit’s Open House, here’s the Mercer Island Reporter’s coverage of the event.