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HOV access assured for now

Folks heading to and from the Island while driving alone will retain access to the center roadway of Interstate 90 and its future carpool lanes, according to officials from the Department of Transportation and the Governor’s Office.

However, the state is unsure how long that promise will last, because tolls may be coming sooner than light rail.

In a letter dated April 23, the Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT) assured city leaders that Island-bound or originated single occupancy vehicles won’t lose the right to use future HOV lanes or the center roadway of I-90.

“To that end, the revised Mercer Island Access Plan restates our intention to allow Mercer Island residents access to the high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes in the outer roadway of I-90 when the center roadway is converted to High Capacity Transit and until conversion to high occupancy toll (HOT) lanes or another tolling mechanism,” reads a letter from the WSDOT Urban Corridors Office in Seattle.

The revised access plan was necessary because WSDOT wrote city officials last September, stating that transportation officials no longer believed “a period of operation of the outer roadway HOV lanes at no cost for Mercer Island single occupancy vehicles will be consistent with equitable and efficient highway operations.”

City Council members and staff members responded to that letter, urging WSDOT to reconsider its position. City officials say they are satisfied with WSDOT’s latest access plan.

“We asked for SOV access in the new HOV lanes for when the center lanes closed down,” Mayor Bryan Cairns said. “The first plan discussed fairness to everybody by getting the same treatment, but we argued Mercer Islanders should receive some preferential treatment, if you will. Because of our situation, it would not be equiable for us to be treated the same as everyone else.”

City manager Rich Conrad said, “The city got everything it wanted.”

In addition to ensuring the HOV access, state officials conceded there is a possibility the new carpool lanes will be tolled before the center roadway is converted to light rail or another high capacity transit option. Once the toll is enacted, Islanders will have to pay the fee like everyone else.

“It is important to emphasize that it is not known how long the lanes would operate as HOV lanes, and it is possible that those lanes may be operated as tolled lanes from the time or even before the conversion of the center roadway occurs,” states a letter signed by Gov. Gregoire’s chief of staff, Tom Fitzsimmons, and WSDOT secretary Doug MacDonald.

However, it looks as if it will be more than 10 years before tolls are implemented on I-90’s carpool lanes. If the funds for East Link light rail and other various transportation improvements are approved this November, Sound Transit officials plan to have the light rail completed in 2020. The outer HOV lanes won’t be put on the floating bridge portion of I-90 much sooner than that.

Theresa Greco, the I-90 corridor manager with WSDOT, said phases two and three of the HOV lane construction have to be complete before the conversion to light rail on I-90. The funds for the design of phase two — express ramps and eastbound HOV lanes from the Island to Bellevue — were included in the state legislature’s 2007-2009 budget, and construction is slated for 2017, Greco said.

Phase one is currently under construction, adding new direct access onramps and offramps on Mercer Island and westbound outer HOV lanes from Bellevue to the Island.

Islander and House Transportation Committee Chair Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, said most of the funds needed for stage three completion are in the RTID ballot measure set for this fall and the final funds will have to be approved later.

Clibborn also said tolls will not be collected on the center roadway.

“We have to get the sequencing right,” Clibborn said. “We have to do it in the right order, and that means we have to have the outer roadway complete before converting the center lanes.”

There is also a possibility that all lanes of I-90 get tolled in the future, which is a whole other debate, Cairns said. Clibborn restated that the state legislature has not discussed any form of tolling on I-90 other than HOT tolls in the carpool lanes. However, the state treasurer, Michael Murphy, said last month that I-90 would have to be tolled to help fund a new SR-520 bridge.

Mercer Island’s state representatives, Clibborn and Fred Jarrett, plan to update the City Council on I-90 and other transportation issues during the council’s regularly scheduled meeting on June 4.

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