Letter to save HOV access

By Ruth Longoria

Political ramifications put aside, plans for Islanders to retain single occupant vehicle use of the Interstate 90 HOV lanes took a giant step forward -- or possibly backward -- at the Oct. 3 City Council meeting.

In a late night addition to the council meeting agenda, councilmembers and meeting attendees got a first look at a letter that -- when signed by Seattle, Bellevue, Mercer Island, King County and Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority leaders -- reinstates some terms of the 1976 Memorandum of Agreement, providing Islanders SOV access to the HOV lanes of I-90. Some politicians and a large contingent of residents have rallied to ``save SOV access'' since the council previously authorized Mayor Alan Merkle to sign an amendment to the MOA, which some said, gave away the Islanders' SOV rights.

After a lengthy debate and a split vote of the council -- with Sven Goldmanis the only councilmember to vote against what several councilmembers and residents expressed was a slight-of-hand attempt to push through an agreement -- the council voted to authorize Mayor Alan Merkle to sign the recently structured letter.

``Why are we hiding the ball on this? ... Why was it just passed out in the middle of the council meeting?'' councilman El Jahncke asked.

``The letter was just signed today,'' Merkle said in defense of the document, which was dated nearly one-month earlier. Merkle said the details of the letter took a while in negotiations and, contrary to what some council members voiced, the council was kept apprised of the details as they were defined. After the vote and addition of Merkle's signature, Mayor Greg Nichols added his autograph Oct. 4 to those already garnered from Ron Sims, county executive, Bellevue Mayor Connie Marshall and John W. Ladenburg, board chair of the regional transit authority.

The letter was then sent on to Douglas B. MacDonald, secretary of the Washington State Department of Transportation. But, prior to passing the letter on to MacDonald, or even the council on Monday night, Merkle e-mailed a copy of the document to Sen. Brian Weinstein, D-Mercer Island, who, Merkle said, called and offered to help Merkle acquire the necessary signature of Nichols, who hadn't yet signed the document.

Other than confusion concerning the last minute appearance of the letter, opposition to the document appears somewhat politically motivated. ``This is a hugely sensitive issue,'' Merkle said after the meeting. ``But this is a wonderful, great thing for the Island and it's part of the right solution. I don't see how anyone could oppose this.''

But oppose it they did. Resident and City Council candidate Lisa Belden asked the council to take some time and consider the ramifications of what it was agreeing to. ``You're going to get trapped again,'' Belden said. Her concern is that the previous terms of the MOA, carried on through the current letter, would kick Islander SOVs out of the HOV lanes once the number of vehicles in the lanes prevents speeds from exceeding 45 miles per hour. ``Study what the numbers show you. When you add the amount of cars that will be driven (in the HOV lanes) we will soon be below that 45 miles per hour ... what are you agreeing to, another four months of SOV use?''

Aubrey Davis spoke in support of the letter. ``What you've got here is an agreement with the other parties now conceding (Islanders' right to the SOV lanes),'' Davis said. ``I think this moves the ball along for you.''

The letter acknowledges that Island traffic will remain in the center roadway for as long as allowed under the MOA and amendment (of 1976), and agrees that -- after the R8-A HOV lanes are constructed on the outer sides of the roadway -- Island traffic will have SOV access to the HOV lanes. However, the final sentence of the terms caused a stir for some residents and council members: ``Such access shall be provided at no cost to Mercer Island traffic until such time as the State implements congestion based pricing on the I-90 roadway.''

If the legislature agrees, at some future date, to impose tolls on traffic across I-90, Islanders would be no better off than Eastside or Seattle residents, even though I-90 is the only access Islanders have on and off the Island, Jahncke and a few residents said.

But even councilman Steve Litzow agreed that the letter is a step in the right direction. ``The letter is fine. I think Aubrey put it best, that it moves the ball forward and this is the first step,'' Litzow said. ``I don't approve the process of this (the letter) being passed out in the middle of the meeting, but this is a nice small step forward.''

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