Comin’ round the bend

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 opened on 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 staff members were also on board for the first public test ride.

Sen. Murray said on Tuesday that she had been waiting years for the day when 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 is 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, go through Bellevue and end 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 of 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 U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert were also in attendance at the HOV ribbon-cutting ceremony and spoke at the event that took place on Thursday morning at the edge of the new ramp.

“I’ve rode light rail many times before, but never in my hometown,” 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 over 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 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 on 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 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 the I-90 carpool lane project, called R-8A, will be completed this week.

According to an amended 1976 agreement between Seattle, Bellevue, Mercer Island, WSDOT 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 for cross-lake transit buses 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 area has not been so popular in the past, reminding those in attendance at both events this week that it failed to get voters’ support in the late 1960s and last year.

“There was a time when this [light rail] was as popular as prohibition,” Nickels said.

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