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Another trip to the ballot for light rail

A rail car waits at Othello Station before a demonstration of Sound Transit
A rail car waits at Othello Station before a demonstration of Sound Transit's Link light rail project for Sen. Patty Murray, Sound Transit Board members and news media Tuesday, October, 7, 2008.
— image credit: Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter

The wait for light rail in Seattle is almost over, just as Islanders and Eastsiders are getting a second chance to approve a cross-lake route in November. A new westbound HOV lane and direct-access off ramp funded by Sound Transit and the Department of Transportation also opens Thursday night, bringing the Island one step closer to light rail.

Last Tuesday, Sound Transit and other local officials — including U.S. Senator Patty Murray — celebrated the much anticipated completion of the first phase of the new regional light rail system that will stretch from the SeaTac Airport to downtown Seattle. Mercer Island Reporter staffers were also on board for the first public test ride.

Senator Murray said Tuesday that she had been waiting years for the day she would first ride the light rail.

"This is a day I have been waiting for. It's been an amazing road to get here. Like everybody, I can't wait to get on board," she said.

Murray, who helped secure $1.3 billion in federal funds to help pay for the line, also said she was looking forward to the next phase of the region's mass transportation system. Next year, construction will begin to expand the line from downtown Seattle, into the Capitol Hill neighborhood and to the University District. If voters support this year's ballot measure to fund additional regional mass transit, then another phase to serve the Eastside would come from Seattle, stop on the Island, going through Bellevue and ending at the Overlake Transit Center near Redmond. The measure would also fund Bus Rapid Transit routes on I-405 from Renton to Redmond and from Sammamish to Seattle on I-90. Most of those routes would be implemented immediately in January 2009, officials said.

Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, who is also the chair of the board for Sound Transit, was on the test ride and visited the Island two days later for the grand opening of the new HOV lane and off ramp on 80th Avenue S.E. Island mayor Jim Pearman, King County Councilmember Jane Hague and federal Congressman Dave Reichert were also in attendance at the HOV ribbon-cutting ceremony and spoke at the event that took place Thursday morning at the edge of the new ramp.

"I've rode light rail many times before but never in my home town," Nickels said on Thursday about the test ride.

With light rail on schedule to open by next July, Sound Transit is asking voters this year to approve a .5 percent sales tax increase to fund $17.9 billion worth of additional rail expansion and mass transit in the next 15 years. Critics say the measure should not be supported because Sound Transit has a record of mismanaging funds, breaking promises with delayed or reduced projects and that the tax increase is too much. Proponents say the estimated average cost per adult, per year is about $69.

"Collectively, [the voters'] decisions this November will reflect a vision of our future," Nickels said Thursday.

The proposal includes a light rail line across Lake Washington in the center roadway of I-90 that would be completed by 2020. If approved, the measure would also direct funds toward the completion of the second and third phases of adding new a carpool lanes to the Midspan bridge in both directions and on eastbound I-90 from Island Crest Way to Bellevue Way.

The first phase of that I-90 carpool lane project, called R-8A, was officially completed last Thursday.

According to an amended 1976 agreement between Seattle, Bellevue, Mercer Island, the DOT and Sound Transit, the center roadway HOV lanes cannot be converted to mass transit until new carpool lanes are added along the outer roadway from Bellevue Way to Seattle.

Sound Transit also recently opened a new, two story parking garage on North Mercer Way and added an additional stop and extra route to the cross-lake transit buses that stop at the Park and Ride.

Last year, the measure, also dubbed Prop. 1, was required by the state legislature to include a separate road-improvement portion. That measure, while approved by Island voters, failed to pass.

Nickels noted that mass transit in the Seattle are hasn't been so popular in the past, reminding those in attendance at both events this week that it failed to get voter's support in the late 1960s in addition to last year's vote. "There was a time when this [light rail] was as popular as prohibition," Nickels said.

The Environmental Impact Statement for constructing light rail on the center roadway of I-90 will be published Dec. 5.

To read the online voter's pamphlet about Sound Transits Prop. 1, go to www.kingcounty.gov/elections.

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