Transportation Changes coming to Mercer Island

September 1, 2015 | by Erin Sirianni

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“No man is an island | Entire of itself | Every man is a piece of the continent | A part of the main.
So begins John Donne’s poem, “No man is an island,” and these words ring true about our own.
We are an island geographically. We are a unique municipality within King County, with our own school district, chamber of commerce, and zip code, and yet we are dependent on our greater community – for medical care, emergency responders, employment, and more – made possible most fundamentally by two stretches of bridge on I-90.

Aerial_photo_of_Mercer_Island,_Washington

Aerial photo of Mercer Island | Photo credit Wikipedia Commons


When once Mercer Island was only accessible by boat and ferry, we can now travel to downtown Seattle or Bellevue by car or bus in about 15 minutes. Sound Transit tells us that in less than 10 years, we may find an even faster ride by light rail.
The light rail expansion is just one example of the many transportation issues to impact our community. And though it may sound promising, especially for the greater region, Islanders have historically had to advocate for transportation policy that benefits us as well.
In the very near term, Islanders will begin to notice some of these changes start to happen. Yet whether these changes are the best for our community is a question many are asking.

What changes are ahead?

Light Rail

The biggest change is the expansion of light rail over the I-90 Bridge. Sound Transit’s East Link project will expand the light rail system from downtown Seattle to Redmond, adding ten stations serving Seattle, Mercer Island, Bellevue, and Redmond.
The light rail will run across the center lane bridge (currently the HOV lanes) from Seattle to Mercer Island, which will “displace permanently all vehicle traffic onto the mainline roadways,” according to City of Mercer Island’s website.  East Link is expected to open to public transit riders in 2023.

Computer-simulation image of new I-90 configuration with Light Rail and new HOV lanes. Credit Sound Transit

Computer-simulation image of new I-90 configuration with Light Rail and new HOV lanes. Credit Sound Transit


 

HOV Access

Over the next two years, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) will create permanent HOV lanes on the main roadways, slightly narrowing the existing lanes to make room for the new carpool lanes.
Island on- and off-ramps to I-90 will have to be closed and reconfigured, thereby limiting our entrances and exits on and off the island and potentially causing long back-ups on our local roadways. Questions remain about how these challenges will be mitigated.

Park & Ride

Many Islanders are dependent on the Mercer Island Park-and-Ride for access to Seattle and Bellevue to work. In 2016, the Bellevue Park and Ride will close. Will Islanders who are already competing with off-island commuters for Park-and-Ride parking spaces face more competition in the future?

Buses

Islanders are also talking about regional bus turnarounds. Sound Transit and Seattle Metro initially chose Mercer Island for a bus intercept, a plan that was unanimously rejected by the Mercer Island City Council. Is the plan off the table?

Tolling

There is a regional trend toward tolling SR 520 and I-405. What does this mean for I-90? Can Islanders continue to avoid tolling?

What Islanders are saying

On the hottest topic of East Link Light Rail expansion, Islanders have contributed to the discussion with editorials published in the Mercer Island Reporter to posts in local community forums and social media.
Some Islanders are optimistic about the expansion
“To me, access to Seattle outside a car is essential to my quality of life as a daily commuter,” said Jessica Crump, an Island resident who commutes daily by bus to work in Seattle.
As a PTA representative, she also believes that the transportation expansion will benefit Mercer Island’s education system.
“Providing transportation options is a long-term investment in our schools, our teachers, and our kids,” she said. “Many of our teachers live off island and their ability to feel like they can get to work in a reasonable amount of time is a huge part of their decision to teach here. I know it will mean some compromises, and I’d want to keep a close eye on exactly what they are, but I’d welcome light rail expansion here.”
Other Islanders are cautious
“I was a big supporter of the [light rail expansion] initially,” said Islander Dan Grove. “But as I looked further into it, I became more and more alarmed and now I think this may be really bad for us.”
He also expressed the frustration of many Island residents who are waiting for answers to questions regarding peripheral challenges to the light rail expansion.
“No one has yet come forward to show how Islanders will get access to the HOV lanes,” he said. “Another issue here is parking. The vast majority of Islanders don’t live right at the station. We need a plan for parking, and we definitely do not have one.”
Additional questions and concerns abound – and Islanders are not known to sit idly by and hope all will turn out for the best.

Island History of Advocating for Transportation Solutions

Mercer Island is not new to transportation issues and has a rich history of addressing these challenges successfully. We got our first bridge in the 1920s, but not by any small effort.
Aubrey-DavisJohn N. Todd, a charter member of the South End Improvement Club, expressed the community’s determination in the execution of that bridge:
“Seattle seems to think that dirt roads and slow-moving ferries with long waiting intervals are good enough for Mercer Island. You know we are willing to do our part and see Seattle go forward, but we have reached the limit of our endurance and must fight to protect ourselves.
We will open headquarters in Seattle and fight the bond issues that are coming up, and fight every man on the ticket who is responsible for delaying the Mercer Island Bridge.” {Excerpt from the book, Mercer Island: From haunted wilderness to coveted community}
Similar advocacy arose again with the expansion of I-90 in the 1960s. Initial plans for the expansion included the installation of a 13-lane bridge constructed similarly to the Alaskan Way Viaduct across the island.
Islanders organized in vehement opposition to this plan and fought for a redesign of the expansion. Then-Mayor Aubrey Davis is famous for his fighting-words: “As for I-90, we don’t want to see it. We don’t want to hear it. We don’t want to smell it.”
The behemoth structure was ultimately eliminated from the plan, and a new plan was executed, which included Islander HOV access rights and the Park on the Lid (later renamed “Aubrey Davis Park”), an expansive park built on top of I-90 to protect Mercer Island neighborhoods from freeway disturbances.
It was a solution that benefited both Mercer Island and the greater community.

Take Action Now make your voice heard

With the public engagement process now underway, all Islanders’ input is encouraged. There have been numerous surveys written by government agencies and entities, but are these surveys asking questions relevant to Islanders’ best interests?
Islanders are invited to participate in a survey created by Vision Mercer Island, a new community organization created to educating Mercer Island about the complex transportation issues facing the Island. (You can participate in the survey at: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/MITransportation)
“We need a transportation plan that benefits Mercer Island as well as the region,” said Lori Otto Punke, executive director of Vision Mercer Island. “Traffic is bad and about to get worse, so we formed Vision Mercer Island to give Island residents a forum to share real concerns about how changes to regional transportation systems will impact our community.”

This article was sponsored by Vision Mercer Island. Learn more at: visionmercerisland.org

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