Mercer Island residents have enjoyed direct access to Interstate 90 HOV lanes under a longstanding agreement. Upcoming light-rail construction could end that access, and island leaders are predicting backups and pressing for relief.
For more than two decades, Mercer Island drivers have enjoyed a perk no others in the region shared: direct access to the high-occupancy-vehicle (HOV) lanes of Interstate 90 — even for those driving alone.
Now island leaders are fighting a federal decision that would require all residents to use the general-purpose lanes when the existing HOV lanes are permanently closed this summer for construction of light-rail tracks across the floating bridge and on to Bellevue and Redmond.
City officials say the added closure of two of three westbound ramps serving the Town Center that go directly to the center HOV lanes will cause major traffic backups as drivers seek an alternate route to the remaining I-90 entrance ramp.
The loss of direct freeway access comes at the same time Mercer Island is bracing for six years of construction near Town Center as the East Link line and a new station are built. That construction is expected to begin in June, after I-90 is re-striped to create an HOV lane in each direction on the existing roadway.
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“It doesn’t work,” said Interim City Manager Pam Bissonnette. “They’re going to create a bunch more traffic downtown and flood our local streets.”
The city is in negotiations with Sound Transit, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) over alternatives to losing the express-lane access. Officials are considering a dozen options that could include allowing single-occupancy-vehicle access to the new HOV lanes to having no access to those lanes except for buses and carpools.
There may be limited sympathy around the region for drivers living in a suburban enclave with an average home value of $1.4 million getting special access to HOV lanes when every other freeway driver, except those in carpools, has to wait in line.
There’s also an environmental argument against making single-occupancy driving easier at the same time the region is investing billions in a light-rail system designed, in part, to reduce its carbon footprint.
“Get in line for the regular ramp,” said Doug Trumm, a senior editor at the Urbanist blog, a Seattle group that analyzes land use and transportation policy. “This huge investment in infrastructure is undermined by making SOV (single-occupancy vehicle) more convenient.”
Mercer Island officials insist they’re not asking for special treatment, but for the transportation agencies to honor agreements that date to 1976. Direct access to the express lanes and thick sound walls and a massive lid were part of a mitigation package agreed to after Mercer Island sued over the planned expansion of I-90 from five to eight lanes more than two decades ago.
The negotiated settlement was meant to compensate the island for the noise, pollution and loss of prime real estate at the north edge of its downtown, said Bissonette. The access was also an acknowledgment that I-90 is Mercer Island’s only connection to the surrounding region.
“We’re an island. We don’t have ferryboats,” she said.
That agreement was reconfirmed by the governor in 2006, by WSDOT in 2007 and again in 2011 for the East Link project’s environmental review, according to city records.
But the FHWA in August said it wasn’t a party to any of those agreements. Daniel Mathis, the agency’s Washington division administrator, in a letter to the city, said that allowing solo Mercer Island drivers access to the new I-90 HOV lanes would violate federal law that generally restricts access to transit, carpools and motorcycles.
The feds noted that Mercer Island has 15 entrance and exit points to and from I-90 and will have the same number once the new HOV lanes are completed.
Mathis listed the agency’s own suggested solutions for the potential backups and congestion: The new HOV lanes could be designated part-time, so Mercer Island drivers could use them at off-peak hours. Or they could be designated HOT (High Occupancy or Tolled) lanes and island drivers could pay “the prevailing price.”
Those proposals, say Mercer Island leaders, won’t address the compounding of transportation problems that include the predicted traffic backups around the Town Center as well as limited commuter-parking options and Eastside bus routes turning around at the Sound Transit station once they drop off passengers for the new light-rail line.
The potential loss of convenient freeway access has also reignited political debates on the island about whether the city’s elected leadership has focused on regional partnerships to the detriment of local interests.
Tom Acker, a vocal opponent of Sound Transit who lost a challenge to Mayor Bruce Bassett last year, said city leaders should have begun planning for the loss of the center express lanes once the Sound Transit 2 package was approved by voters in 2008.
“The city still has no plan for the increased traffic, the bus traffic or the lack of commuter parking. These issues aren’t new,” he said.
Bassett said Mercer Island leaders had no reason to think the historic access would be denied until last summer. He traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby the congressional delegation to try to prevent it. Since then, he said, “We’ve been working tirelessly with transportation officials to try to find a solution that works for Mercer Island and for the region.”
In addition to reconfigured ramps or access to the new HOV lanes, Mercer Island has asked Sound Transit to give residents preferential access to the island’s 450-stall Park-and-Ride parking garage to reduce the need to drive.
The garage typically fills up by 7:30 a.m., and a Sound Transit survey of license plates in 2014 found that 47 percent of users were from off-island, drawn to the free parking closest to Seattle.
“For Mercer Island residents, the garage isn’t the best option, it’s the only option. We’d like to see some recognition of that from Sound Transit,” Bassett said.
Sound Transit is completing its own analysis of the impact of the loss of express-lane access and expects to share its findings with city leaders and highway officials in January.
“Everybody is interested in advancing the mobility of Mercer Island and the region, both short and long term,” said spokesman Geoff Patrick.
But with seven months until light-rail construction begins, Mercer Island leaders question how committed regional, state and federal transportation officials are to solving the looming problems.
Interim City Manager Bissonnette said, “We have a sense of urgency that doesn’t seem to translate to any of the other agencies.”