Access to light rail remains unsolved

Sound Transit has been beating its drum for East Link’s future station on the Island for several years now, but many details of the design and its impact are still coming to light. In June, Sound Transit, joined by representatives from King County Metro, presented before City Council a transit integration study that explores how light rail will intersect with bus service when it begins operations in 2023.

One component of that plan, is a series of scenarios to mitigate bus traffic. Three scenarios are under review. Two feature roundabouts near the North Mercer Park-and-Ride. A third treats the several city blocks encompassing 80th Ave. S.E. and 77th Ave. S.E. as a giant traffic circle for buses. In scenario three, a roundabout at Sunset Way would cost between $13 and $18 million and shave off about 0.6 acres of the downtown Sculpture Park. Buses would continue from the east off I-90 and exit at 80th Ave. They would then make a right at North Mercer Way, a left down 77th Ave. and use the roundabout to reverse directions. That would place the bus in front of the 77th Ave. station entrance. Once full, the bus would continue back to North Mercer Way and get back onto the HOV on-ramp.

Scenario four, a roundabout at North Mercer Way, would direct buses coming from the east, to make a left, use the traffic block and reverse directions, to get back onto I-90. Significantly cheaper than the former – it costs between $8 and $11 million – the project would demolish two nearby houses.

“The big difference is from a transit performance perspective,” says Sound Transit’s East Link Project Director, Don Billen. “Scenario three gives you additional bus layover and pick-up or drop-off space on 77th. Whereas scenario four, because it’s not running on 77th, you can’t use any layover.”

Jason Rogers lives with his wife next to one of two houses that would be impacted by the North Mercer Way roundabout.

“I knew [noise was an issue] when I bought the house. It’s not like the noise is a surprise per se” explains Rogers. “But anything that would move noise and the buses closer to my house is concerning to me.”

Rogers, who has lived in the neighborhood with his wife, for about a year, said he first learned about the roundabout scenario in June and attended the July 10 open house. His back porch looks directly down 77th and while bus noise is an issue -- Rogers can hear Sound Transit express routes 550 and the 554 coming and going -- freeway noise from the lid is maybe the greatest nuisance.

“I wouldn’t say I’m spitting fire about this,” explains Rogers, “but I’m certainly interested and staying in touch with Sound Transit.”

The study determined there were no serious noise impacts for any of the scenarios, but that’s because the I-90 corridor is already quite loud.

Mayor Bruce Bassett said at this stage, he prefers a roundabout at North Mercer Way because other options would bring more buses into the Town Center. He emphasized that opinion doesn’t represent the collective thoughts of Council.

“It tightens up the area of impact,” said Bassett. “If you look at option three, we’d lose part of the Sculpture Park. That intersection marks the entry point to Town Center and [it] would become this big car-dominated complexity. I don’t feel like that’s the type of entrance we want to create.”

Sound Transit representative Tia Raamot said she’d met with both homeowners to discuss study impacts of a roundabout at North Mercer Way, but real estate professionals have not yet been brought into the fold. Bassett said he’d also heard from homeowners and that they were frustrated to find themselves in limbo ­—unsure about whether to remodel a deck or further invest in their house.

But the issue is complicated by the fact that Council is using the transit hub study to engage on parking issues, considering options like making the Park-and-Ride exclusively available to Islanders.

“Until we have something [on parking] to present, we’re on hold,” said Mayor Bassett. “This is only half of the equation we need.”

The study will go before the Sound Transit board in August.

Though the transit integration study is being jointly conducted by the city and other transit agencies, Billen said Sound Transit will have the final say because the project is considered an extension of light rail. Bassett said while an argument could be made otherwise, he believes because they are city streets, the decision was for council and staff to make.

“We want to be known and seen as collaborators on transit,” said Bassett. “But the point we hear from the public endlessly, is that there’s a real concern we don’t have parking in the vicinity of transit...That will be even harder with the loss of Metro service on the Island.”


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