The lush landscaping that distinguishes Interstate 90 as it passes through Mercer Island didn't get there by accident, but because of the...

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The lush landscaping that distinguishes Interstate 90 as it passes through Mercer Island didn’t get there by accident, but because of the same negotiating savvy that city leaders used in the 1970s to win residents access to the highway’s center car-pool lanes — even when driving solo.

Now, as Sound Transit nears a decision regarding what mode of transportation would best shuttle commuters across Lake Washington, island leaders have allocated $100,000 to hire a lobbyist to make sure the city’s interests aren’t forgotten by the agency’s board, the state Legislature and fellow Puget Sound leaders.

At stake is whether those planning the future of I-90 follow through with a regional agreement forged last summer that any loss of mobility on Mercer Island’s part would be “satisfactorily addressed.”

“Our message is we still steadfastly believe that the region needs to do that, and we’re going to continue to press for specific commitments,” City Manager Rich Conrad said.

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At issue is a special agreement negotiated in the mid-1970s that allows islanders to skip jam-packed traffic and use the I-90 car-pool lanes regardless of whether they have passengers.

Under proposals being studied by Sound Transit’s board as it updates its long-range regional transportation plan, the center roadway on I-90 could be transformed for light rail, monorail or bus-only lanes and the highway restriped to accommodate car-pool lanes on its outer edges. With no new agreement in place, that could force islanders to use the general-purpose lanes rather than the car-pool lanes.

If that happens, Mercer Island residents have offered several suggestions to mitigate the loss of center-lane access: better transit on and off the island; designated spots for islanders in the city’s park-and-ride lot so they easily could access high-capacity transit; special transponders in cars that would enable solo island drivers to use the new car-pool lanes without penalty.

While island leaders have relied on their own clout in the past, a lobbyist should be helpful this time around, Conrad said, because of increased competition for shrinking transportation funds. Mercer Island’s lobbyist will prepare a comment letter for the Sound Transit board and will advise the council on how best to get across its message.

Some residents, however, say island leaders shouldn’t have agreed last summer to surrender the center lanes without waiting for further study on monorail, light rail, express buses and other options and how they would affect the city’s traffic.

Lisa Belden, an attorney and island resident who led a campaign last summer against changes, said residents should continue to have access to the center lanes until the city figures out what mitigations would work on the island and obtains commitments that they’ll happen.

Karen Gaudette: 206-515-5618 or