Under the Sound Transit 3 proposal on the November ballot, Issaquah would get a light-rail station in 2041. But residents and politicians disagree over whether Issaquah is big enough to warrant connection to the regional system and whether 25 years is too long to wait.
Historic murals in downtown Issaquah depict the city’s past as a logging and farming community set amid the beauty of the Cascade foothills. These days, though, it’s hard to see the murals through the lines of traffic that jam city streets much of the day.
The $54 billion Sound Transit 3 expansion plan on the November ballot includes an Issaquah station that would link the city to the regional light-rail system. But city leaders and the area’s legislative candidates are divided over the proposal.
Among the questions: Should the light-rail system be extended to a city of 35,000 at the edge of the metropolitan area, and is the tax hit — about $330 annually for the region’s median household — just too much?
The proposal to bring light rail to the city by 2041 comes as many Issaquah residents are questioning the city’s long-term growth plans to transform the suburban community into one with a more dense, urban center.
“We’re having an identity crisis,” said state Rep. Chad Magendanz, R-Issaquah, who opposes the ST3 ballot measure and is challenging Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah, who supports it. “We’re struggling with whether we want to be a bedroom community or a higher-density one. There isn’t a lot of appetite for more growth, particularly the density that would support light rail,” Magendanz said.
This month the Issaquah City Council slapped an emergency moratorium on development, including in its commercial core, along either side of Interstate 90 where the city has planned for future growth and light rail.
Mayor Fred Butler, a strong advocate for light rail and a Sound Transit board member, said the moratorium is not a revolt against the vision for concentrating future growth. Rather, he said, residents have voiced concerns about a new, five-story, 350-unit apartment building on Northwest Gilman Boulevard that didn’t meet city goals for affordable housing and mixed-use development.
Ironically, perhaps, residents complained that the apartment building’s design was “more suburban than urban,” he said.
Butler noted that the Central Issaquah Plan the city adopted in 2012 directs new development to an area now dominated by strip malls and parking lots. Allowing mixed-use buildings of up to 12 stories in the commercial core, he said, protects forested hillsides around the city as well as the historic downtown from development.
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The mayor also argues the pressing need for more transit. The city’s 824-stall park-and-ride garage and a 1,000-stall garage in the Issaquah Highlands fill to capacity every day, he said. And more people are coming. The city projects Issaquah will grow to about 52,000 by 2035.
“I-90, our highway to I-405 and Seattle, is becoming more and more congested. Even transit is stuck in traffic,” Butler said. “It’s critical for Issaquah residents to have an option that is separated from vehicle traffic and will connect people to the regional light-rail system.”
But City Councilmember Mary Lou Pauly said the development moratorium is a direct reflection of residents’ frustration with traffic.
She said the city counted about 21,000 cars daily, many from cities outside Issaquah including Maple Valley, Black Diamond and Covington, passing through downtown Issaquah in 2012 on their way to and from I-90. That number has only grown.
“What I’m hearing is people asking, ‘How can we be adding an apartment building that will put 400 more cars on the road when our traffic is in crisis right now?’ ” said Pauly.
She said she’s focused on getting Issaquah voters to support a $50 million city transportation bond on the fall ballot that would improve formerly rural two-lane roads.
Still, she said, the roads won’t be able to handle the pass-through traffic. Light rail to Issaquah is part of the solution, Pauly said, although it won’t arrive for decades.
Eastside-based businesses including Costco and Microsoft, and REI, which has said it is headed to Bellevue in a few years, all are supporting the ST3 plan to add 62 more miles to the light-rail network and connect Eastside cities to each other and Seattle.
Earlier this month, 21 employers with a strong presence on the Eastside signed a letter to the city councils of Bellevue, Bothell, Issaquah, Kirkland, Mercer Island and Redmond urging endorsement of ST3. The letter calls the measure a “critical infrastructure improvement” to avoid making congestion worse and to ensure continued economic success.
Although Costco’s house brand is “Kirkland,” the company’s international headquarters and 5,000 employees are based in Issaquah. John McKay, Costco’s chief operating officer and executive vice president, said conversations around the water cooler almost always start with a recap of how bad the morning commute was.
“Our fear is how we will continue to survive over time if the region is gridlocked. We see our employees’ ability to get around the Eastside as critical to us in the long term,” McKay said.
State politics, light rail
The issues of congestion and the Sound Transit 3 proposal are also dividing candidates for legislative seats in the 5th District, which includes Issaquah, Carnation, Snoqualmie, Maple Valley, Black Diamond and parts of Renton.
State Sen. Mullet, who runs two small businesses in the Issaquah Highlands, called traffic the top issue in his race against Magendanz. “The only way to solve it is to make infrastructure investments,” Mullet said.
He noted that Magendanz voted against a 12-cent gas- tax increase in 2015 even though it raised $16 billion for highway improvements, including about $250 million for projects in the district.
“Chad made a calculation that he could vote against all the transportation projects in the district and attack me for supporting the gas-tax increase. I made the opposite calculation, that people wanted congestion relief and no tolls on I-90.”
Mullett, a former Issaquah City Council member, said light rail could get people out of their cars.
Magendanz, a software developer and former Navy officer, said Issaquah will never have the density to justify the cost of light rail. He said the election is about taxes, not traffic, and he opposed the gas-tax increase because most in the district didn’t support it.
“Many people out here feel like they’re being engineered out of their cars,” Magendanz said.
Rep. Jay Rodne, R-Snoqualmie, who is seeking re-election in November, also opposes ST3.
Rodne calls the $54 billion cost “outrageous.” He said the region needs to build more roads and remove the controversial Interstate 405 express toll lanesthat he said have worsened congestion.
Rodne, who serves as chief counsel for Snoqualmie Valley Hospital, said he’s also worried that a big tax bill for light rail would hurt the Legislature’s ability under the state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision to direct more revenue to schools.
“Education is our paramount duty. It’s certainly a higher priority than light rail,” Rodne said.
His Democratic opponent, Jason Ritchie, an Issaquah small-business owner, supports the light-rail extension to Issaquah but says that, if elected, he would work to relocate the proposed station to the denser Issaquah Highlands and to speed up the construction timeline.
He rejects the anti-tax message of Republicans opposed to light rail.
“I call it an investment in my kids’ future,” said Ritchie. “Building transportation alternatives that bring jobs to the community is what tax dollars should be spent on.”
In the race for the district’s House seat currently held by Magendanz, Darcy Burner, a Democrat who lost three bids for the U.S. House over the past several years, is facing Republican Paul Graves, an attorney and political newcomer.
Burner, who runs a small manufacturing business in Carnation, supports ST3 and its promise of better connecting Eastside cities to each other and to the region. She also would like the timeline speeded up.
“Infrastructure investments haven’t been keeping up with the growth,” she said. “We should do it as new housing is built rather than waiting decades.”
Graves opposes the light-rail plan and said it doesn’t offer enough benefits to the Eastside for the cost. He also predicted that technology, including its impact on transportation, in the next 30 years is going to be flexible, tailored to individual needs and available on-demand.
“A big, fixed project that’s going to cost each household (Sound Transit 2 and 3 combined) about $1,000 a year forever — I don’t think that’s the best use of our limited taxing capacity,” he said.