Aubrey Davis, longtime Island resident and public servant, died on Sunday, Feb. 17, in Seattle. He was 95. He last appeared on Mercer Island on Wednesday, Feb. 14, at the Mercer Island Youth and Family Services annual fundraising breakfast. Mr. Davis served as a honorary co-chair of the event.
Most would agree that Mercer Island would be a far different place if not for Mr. Davis. A smart and savvy public servant, Davis influenced major public works initiatives on the Island and throughout the region. His role negotiating the design and construction of I-90 across Mercer Island and the placement of parks over its right-of-way is how he will be remembered most.
Mr. Davis was elected to the Mercer Island City Council in 1967 and became mayor in 1970. He served on the City Council until 1978. In 1971 he became chair of Metro’s Transit Committee, helping to create the Seattle ride-free zone, use of higher-capacity articulated buses, and accessibility for the disabled. He was later named regional administrator of the federal Urban Mass Transportation Administration. He lobbied for funds for Portland’s light rail system and Seattle’s bus tunnel.
An Island resident for nearly 50 years, Davis has been a key figure in Mercer Island’s history. Just two other individuals are mentioned more than Davis in the pages of the book, “Mercer Island Heritage,” the semi-official written record of the Island. The first is Ben Werner, a fellow city Councilman and mayor of Mercer Island who worked alongside Davis to rein in the scope and the impact of the I-90 project.
The other is Vitas Schmid, a German-born wagon-maker originally from Illinois, who filed a claim for Island land and built a cabin here in 1876. The story of Schmid, who struggled to keep his claim in this unique and beautiful place, mirrors the story of Davis and the Islanders who took on the then-powerful Washington State Highway Commission in the 1970s.
Davis and others who took the state to task during the massive expansion of I-90 made a profound impact on the quality of life on Mercer Island and established its importance (and his influence) to the regional transportation network.
In 1970, Davis formed a committee to protect the quality of life on the Island as the state set out to expand I-90 across the North end. The committee and the lawsuit that followed charged that the state department of highways had failed to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act and improperly treated citizens whose property was within the project right-of-way.
The lawsuit halted construction on the East Channel Bridge while the issues were sorted out. Davis knew that working with the other communities affected along the corridor would strengthen not only the position of Islanders but would improve the entire project. These efforts led to the 1976 Memorandum of Understanding with the state that gave communities affected by the interstate certain rights, and the standing to object or intervene in such projects. The MOU is still an important document within the ongoing discussions about I-90: from the rights of Islanders to drive alone in the center (express) lanes and the placement of facilities for future transit lanes and stations.
Beyond transportation issues, Davis had a long and rich professional life. Davis was in a leadership role at Group Health Cooperative since he was a founding member in 1947, serving for three years as the CEO. Appointed by Sen. Brock Adams, he headed the Northwest regional office of the U.S. Department of Transportation. In addition to his years on the City Council, he served on boards and commissions regarding public works throughout his adult life. In 1992, Mr. Davis was appointed to the Washington Transportation Commission, and he pushed the state highway department into supporting rail and commuter-trip reduction. Mr. Davis continued to work on issues such as congestion pricing after he left the state commission in 2004.
Finally, light rail and more transit lanes were in the queue. In 2009, Davis, then still on the board of the Puget Sound Regional Council, emphasized that keeping the momentum going on improving our regional transportation is paramount.
"Yes, these new transit projects are underway," he told the Reporter in 2009 with a bit of impatience. But there is still no time to waste. “It is not time to sit back,” he said. “There is a crisis of funding for future transportation now. Projects underway now have come from sources that are drying up.” With fewer miles being driven and more efficient vehicles on the road, the gas tax which provided a good surrogate for user fees, is now less effective than before, he explained. "Tolling and other pricing methods for using roadways are unavoidable," he added. "It is the next item on the list."
Mr. Davis was born in Southern California and graduated from Occidental College. After college he took a job as an intern in Washington, D.C., with the Federal Works Agency. There he met Henrietta, or 'Retta', his future wife. Drafted during World War II, he served in the Army in Calcutta, India, and worked in the ordnance unit, building trucks to be sent to China. After the war he moved his family to Seattle, where he worked with the Seattle Housing Authority and later the Wage Stabilization Board. After the war ended, he and friend Hugh Mitchell, began selling a chemical waterproofing material produced by Gaco Western.
Mr. Davis and his family had lived on Greenbrier Lane in a home he had built some 50 years ago. After the death of his wife in 2008, Mr. Davis moved to a condo in Madison Park. He remained busy, an essential resource for reporters, planners and government officials alike.
He is survived by his four children, eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
A service for Mr. Davis is planned for May 18 at the Paramount Theatre Seattle.