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Mercer Island: Citizen advisory committee to mull fate of Island Crest Way and Merrimount

A group of Islanders to be selected by the mayor will now deliberate the fate of the very crucial and dangerous intersection at Island Crest Way and Merrimount Drive.

The city is looking for 15 Islanders to collaborate on the future of the intersection during the next six months by devising a recommendation to the City Council, which would actually make the final decision concerning any permanent modifications. The group will also consider changes to the four-lane portion of Island Crest Way south of the intersection and before S.E. 53rd Place. Two members of the Council will also work with the appointed citizen advisory group to ensure that discussions remain realistic given the budget limit for the project. On Monday night, the Council appropriated $65,000 to spend on the citizen-engineer combined planning sessions. City engineers will join the group along with traffic consultants from KPG, which have been working with the city on the intersection’s improvement for the past few years.

Islanders interested in joining the panel are encouraged to call the project manager and assistant city engineer, Anne Tonella-Howe. The proposed meetings are scheduled to take place between November and February, with the recommendation to be completed by March and the final Council vote in April. The mayor is looking to appoint a panel comprising residents from various neighborhoods, including representation from the South end and West Mercer — two areas with homeowners who feel directly affected by modifications to the intersection. According to KPG engineer Joe Giacobazzi, such advisory groups are common and have been successful in the region in the past.

“You have a split community out there,” Giacobazzi told the Council. “This is a way of bringing those opposing forces together and an opportunity for citizens to get educated on what would work well out there, while trying to get a citizen-backed plan through the process.”

The fate of the intersection, which was determined to be the Island’s most dangerous in 2006, has been controversial. The city has struggled with finding a workable solution. Today, a temporary, low-cost barrier is in place that prevents a southbound left turn onto S.E. 44th Street and crossing the intersection from Merrimount to 44th. The city installed and has monitored this setup during the past year. They concluded that such an improvement did not significantly affect travel times but could be made safer.

Some critics dislike the funnel created by reducing the through-lanes from four to two. Others remain insistent on the installation of a traffic signal and some only ask for a simple improvement of what is out there now.

Calls to fix the intersection began a few years ago after severe accidents started to occur more frequently. According to the city, T-bone collisions involving high school drivers attempting to cross Island Crest from Merrimount were also happening. Many residents suggested that a traffic signal be installed, and a light was originally slated to be put up in 2010 as part of the city’s six-year road improvement plan. The City Council took the light off the schedule this year, however, and in June, the Council decided to reduce Island Crest Way south of the intersection from a four-lane thoroughfare to three with a shared center turn lane. The design work included aesthetics similar to the southern portion of the roadway and some pedestrian “refuges.”

Weeks later, the Council reneged that decision so that the city could establish the citizen advisory group.

“It may seem impossible right now, today,” Giacobazzi said of the numerous insights on how to fix the roadway. “But we’ve never done this when we had not arrived at an anonymous decision on what the community wanted to do. Although, there have been times when the group selected solutions that the engineers never had thought of before.”

During the public hearing of the last Council meeting, nine citizens voiced their opinions about the intersection’s past and future. Pedestrian safety crossing Island Crest Way was another issue brought up by both citizens and engineers.

Islander Jim Richards shared his experience of witnessing a pedestrian get hit by a car three years ago while she was in a crosswalk.

“I stopped for her, but the person in the right lane hit her and threw her 60 feet into the bushes,” he said. “I later learned a citation was not in order because the driver had done nothing wrong; their view was simply blocked. The situation right now is where a person obeying the law can be hit by somebody who did nothing wrong.”

Councilmember Dan Grausz asked if it was possible for Islanders to try any proposed solution with another temporary test. He suggested Islanders may come to support a lane reduction after they experience it for awhile.

“The thing about the road diet is the fear of the unknown,” Grausz said. “People are wondering how it’s going to pan out.”

If interested in joining the citizen advisory group, e-mail the project manager, Anne Tonella-Howe, at Anne.Tonella-Howe@mercergov.org.

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