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From paper to pavement: Light rail station at North Mercer Park and Ride

Within the space of just a few hours, Islanders heard opposite views concerning the proposed East Link light rail last Wednesday as downtown Bellevue developer Kemper Freeman, Jr., spoke out against the project the same day an entourage of Sound Transit officials visited the Island.

Making a stop on the Island for a morning talk to a group of retired Islanders, the developer of Eastside shopping malls, Bellevue and Lincoln Squares, voiced his disdain for plans to put trains on I-90’s center roadway and in Bellevue. But just a few hours after Freeman spoke, Sound Transit hosted a public workshop at the community center to display the Island’s future light rail station and hear what Islanders want included in the design.

So the train is a-comin’.

The Island light rail station will have two points of entry, one off 80th Avenue S.E. and another on 77th, with stairs, escalators and an elevator. It will also incorporate the station into the existing style of the highway.

Most of the Islanders at the workshop asked questions concerning how Islanders will benefit from losing the center roadway to rails and the total cost of the project. In his overview, project manager Don Billen acknowledged major concerns Islander’s have expressed at previous workshops.

“In these earlier sessions Mercer Islander’s expressed their concerns about losing the center HOV lanes, increasing congestion on I-90 and the environment of the future light rail station,” Billen said.

The workshop last week was about how the Island station would be designed — not about the decision to go with rail.

“What we heard about the station was that Mercer Islanders didn’t want their station to feel like it was in the middle of a freeway and wanted the station to fit with the existing environment,” Billen said.

In a brief question and answer session, one Island resident asked Billen why light rail across I-90 was necessary if only one metro transit route, the 550, goes from Seattle to the Island’s park and ride to the South Bellevue park and ride.

“What you’re really doing is spending billions of dollars to replace one bus route,” the man said.

Billen responded to the question arguing the center roadway is currently under utilized because busses get stuck in the bottle necks at the interchanges of I-5, I-90 and I-405. He also said the light rail system as a whole will reduce the number of busses on the roadways and provide reliable transportation to the regions five most populated and largest employment centers.

Earlier that morning, former state senator and Island resident, Jim Horn, who has opposed light rail, asked for Freeman’s take on East link light rail. Freeman said Sound Transits unelected board “doesn’t answer to anybody,” and suggested more roads were needed instead of a rail system.

“I am terrified about the transportation planning or the lack thereof in the Northwest,” Freeman said. “Here you have an unelected group of individuals that say they are concerned for the regions mobility but they have completely detached themselves from your mobility.”

Freeman said light rail proponents’ have told him he would gain financially from light rail because he would get more building space with a reduced need for parking. Freeman, however, said 95 percent of the shoppers at his malls come by car.

“They think it would make sense that I be the biggest supporter of light rail because I would benefit the most if I was no longer required to build all these expensive parking spots,” Freeman said. “But there are better ways to spend our money.”

According to transit designers, train rides to and from the Island into Seattle and Bellevue would take about nine minutes.

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