WSDOT won’t give Mercer Island special access to HOV lanes on I-90, according to a letter sent to the city Tuesday. The state said it will work onramp and local street improvements.
The state won’t grant Mercer Island solo drivers special access to the new high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes of Interstate 90 when the existing HOV lanes are closed this summer for construction of light rail.
Roger Millar, state secretary of transportation, notified city leaders by letter late Wednesday that the U.S. Department of Transportation cannot legally grant single-occupancy vehicles access to HOV lanes, even on a temporary basis, such as during construction.
“This is a federal requirement that the State cannot change and with which WSDOT (Washington State Department of Transportation) is obligated to comply,” Millar wrote.
City leaders said the state identified no short-term solutions to the local traffic impacts expected when the onramps to the center HOV lanes are closed for light-rail construction from Seattle across the I-90 bridge to Mercer Island, Bellevue and Redmond.
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“By issuing the letter, WSDOT has made it clear that it intends to ignore access agreements dating back to 1976,” Mercer Island Mayor Bruce Bassett said in a written statement.
Bassett said morning commuter traffic on the island trying to reach westbound I-90 would be diverted from Island Crest Way, a four-lane arterial, onto streets around the Town Center that lack sidewalks, centerlines and good visibility. Additionally, he said, the diversion would direct traffic through several busy school crossings.
The state and Sound Transit has just completed a draft transportation study analyzing the impacts and plans to work with the city and Sound Transit to finalize a list of ramp and local street improvements.
“Mercer Island people can still get to I-90, they just can’t use the HOV lanes unless they’re a carpool,” said WSDOT spokesman Travis Phelps.
State Rep Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, called the state’s decision “disappointing but not surprising.” She said WSDOT could lose federal funding if it tries to give Islanders special I-90 access.
Clibborn, who chairs the House Transportation Committee, Bassett and other city leaders met last week with Millar and Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff to discuss the city’s concerns.
The loss of direct access comes at the same time Mercer Island expects six years of construction for the East Link line and a new station near the Town Center.
The Mercer Island City Council will hold a discussion on the access issue at its Monday meeting. City leaders say that potential action could include legislative fixes or litigation.
Bassett argued that the state should honor agreements dating back to 1976 that gave solo drivers direct access to the center I-90 HOV lanes as part of a negotiated settlement to a lawsuit over the expansion of the freeway across the island.
But lawyers who were part of the original legal fight say that Mercer Island’s special access wasn’t granted in perpetuity, but only until buses or light rail filled the transit lanes.
“The political deal was that Mercer Island would get special access to the carpool lanes until mass transit was operational, and then Mercer Island would lose that access,” said Hugh Spitzer, University of Washington law professor who was on the Seattle City Council staff in 1976 and then an attorney to then-Mayor Charlie Royer.
Another attorney, Roger Leed, represented Rainier Valley and Mount Baker property owners fighting a proposed I-90 expansion to 14 lanes. The negotiated settlement agreed to six general purpose lanes and two transit lanes reserved for buses and carpools until light rail was built, he said.
Mercer Island leaders, Leed said, have “conveniently forgotten that its use of those lanes was always conditional and subject to termination.”