Plenty of money for signals

Council hesitates to spend $2.3M earmarked for traffic lights

By J. Jacob Edel
Mercer Island Reporter

While the City Council decided to go with temporary traffic restrictions at Island Crest Way and Merrimount Drive, which are being installed this month, the city maintains it has the funds to put up traffic signals at that intersection and others in the near future.

The city has budgeted slightly more than $2.3 million toward four new traffic signals and one replacement on the Island within the next four years.

In the meantime, the $85,000 for road improvements at the intersection of Merrimount Drive and Island Crest Way will reduce the Island’s main thoroughfare to one lane in each direction through the intersection. The southbound right lane will be converted to a right-turn-only lane and the northbound left lane will become a left-turn-only lane. Both will direct traffic onto Merrimount. Crossing Island Crest from Merrimount and S.E. 44th Street by car will also be prevented by a new curb placed between the existing two northbound lanes. Turns off S.E. 44th will also be restricted to a right- turn-only lane onto Island Crest.

Included in the city’s six year road plan, which is updated by the Council every spring, there are currently four traffic signals to be added on the Island. The locations of the traffic lights include two near the high school — with one at Island Crest/Merrimount and the other at S.E. 40th Street and 86th Avenue S.E. — and two more in the Town Center. The downtown signals are planned along S.E. 27th Street at 77th and 78th Avenues S.E.

The city funds traffic signals and other road improvements out of its Street Fund, according to finance director Chip Corder. The revenues for this fund come from real estate excise taxes and the gas tax. The amount of money available for road improvements in the six-year plan are based on the city’s revenue projections of those taxes.

City engineer Patrick Yamashita said new developments in the Town Center will contribute around $57,000 toward the new signals. The 7700 Central currently under construction will contribute $33,950 while The Mercer will contribute $18,667. The 7800 Plaza project will add $4,286 to the traffic light fund.

“These contributions are the developers’ proportionate shares for the future traffic signal,” Yamashita said. “It’s based on the increased traffic generated by the projects during rush hour compared to the existing traffic volume.”

Yamashita also said that the Boys and Girls Club’s proposed PEAK project will contribute a proportionate share for the signals near the new youth facility though the specific amount has not yet been determined.

The new signal near the proposed PEAK project and the high school will be at the intersection of S.E. 40th and 86th Avenue. It is currently slated for installation next year. The city also plans to widen parts of 40th, Island Crest Way and 86th for new or extended turn lanes. About $750,000 is earmarked for that project. There is an additional $300,000 for replacing the current signal at 40th and Island Crest Way to accommodate the road changes. The new light at 86th is planned to be operational before the possible completion of PEAK.

Nearby, temporary traffic restrictions in the intersection of Merrimount Drive and Island Crest Way will be installed in the coming weeks. The City Council opted for the upcoming turn restrictions as a test to avoid adding a new signal because of the high cost and potential impedance of traffic flows on Island Crest Way. Funds for the light were pushed back a year, now slated for installation in 2010 instead of 2009.

In recent years, many residents have requested a traffic signal at Merrimount, and city officials have noted it as the most dangerous intersection on the Island. The cost of a signal would be around $750,000 for its design and construction. If traffic consultants and city staff decide the temporary improvements to be effective and constructive, making the intersection safer and not impeding traffic flows, the Council could ax the plans for the signal.

The first downtown traffic signal was postponed for another year earlier this summer by the Council because of the delay in construction at the 7700 Central mixed-use project. The Mercer, another mixed-use development across 77th, was completed and opened in 2006. The City Council decided to put off the signal until construction of the new development was nearer its completion. The city currently has that signal installation placed in 2011.

That traffic light will cost $235,000, and the other light a block away will be built in 2011, costing the city $324,000.

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