Light rail on I-90 within a decade?

By Ruth Longoria

If Sound Transit's plans come to fruition, it looks like light rail would be built ``in our lifetime,'' despite earlier city management predictions to the contrary.

For the first time publicly, during the Chamber of Commerce luncheon Thursday, Sound Transit officials offered a potential timeline for moving light rail or convertible bus rapid transit to the Interstate 90 bridge using the center, reversible HOV lanes.

Transit officials are working on what is expected by March 2006 to be a completed draft plan of the project. The plan would be taken to the voters in 2006.

If approved by voters, the project could be completed and light rail running within the next 10 years, said Ric Ilgenfritz, Sound Transit's chief communications officer.

Before center lane construction could begin, an $18.9 million, four-phase plan to move HOV lanes to the outside of the roadway -- called R8A -- would have to be already completed. That is expected to take about two years, Ilgenfritz said. In about 2008, construction could then begin for either light rail or bus rapid transit with rails in place for conversion to light rail as needed at a later date. The March 2006 draft plan will say which mode is selected.

Ilgenfritz also talked of the half-dozen-or-so Park & Ride and transit center projects breaking ground or in the works for the Eastside, including in Sammamish, Issaquah, Bellevue, Eastgate and Redmond.

``It's a fairly impressive array of projects,'' he said. ``Overall in the corridor, we're adding 2,200 parking stalls.''

Nearly 200 of those parking stalls will be added at the North Mercer Way Park & Ride, where a parking garage is in the design stages and is about 90 percent complete, according to Lee Somerstein, Sound Transit representative. The garage is expected to bring the current available 260 parking spaces up to 450 stalls, Somerstein said earlier this month. Sound Transit also plans to improve bus platforms, provide new shelters, upgrade lighting, install closed circuit TV and add art work, Somerstein said.

The Park & Ride will be built regardless of what happens with the I-90 project. The parking structure probably won't be the actual site of a light rail or bus rapid transit transfer center, though it will be beneficial to future plans, Ilgenfritz said.

``If you already have a Park & Ride with bus bays and parking, to look at that location is a logical starting point.''

From a design standpoint, he said, if light rail was planned, Island riders would need to somehow get up from the lower I-90 roadway -- probably on escalators -- to the surface streets. It would, in some ways, be similar to an underground subway station, but not as dark, since light comes through the I-90 tunnel section.

Waiting for that selection is what's delaying Islanders from seeing renditions of what a new transit station would look like, Ilgenfritz said, in response to a question by Island resident Phil Flash who asked why no conceptualized drawings of a station were available.

Flash said he's concerned about the timing of the project.

``Personally, I want to see (the project) completed, you know what I mean?'' 86-year-old Flash joked.

Most of what Ilgenfritz had to share has been presented at previous community and City Council meetings. Sound Transit will continue to send representatives into the community to spread the mass transportation gospel and listen to input from residents during the next six months.

In addition to being a soapbox for City Council candidates, the I-90 issue has been on the lips of a wide range of Islanders the past several months, several of whom took the opportunity to ask questions and make comments at the Chamber lunch.

``That's a loaded question,'' Ilgenfritz told Islander Myra Lupton when she asked him about the language of the 1976 Memorandum Of Agreement, which gave Islanders single occupant vehicle use in the center HOV lanes.

``We not only have an SOV problem, we have an `adult illiteracy' problem,'' Lupton said of those she believes are misunderstanding the agreement and its implications for continued use of the HOV lanes.

Regardless of interpretation of the details in that agreement (which he said has been in question for the past 30 years), Ilgenfritz said the important thing to remember is that ``We are a community.''

``For a community to be successful,'' he added, ``we need to work together and act together as one mind. That's a hard thing to do, but we at Sound Transit are going to work with Mercer Island, the state DOT, Seattle, King County and Bellevue and come up with what we can -- together.''

Sidebar: Westbound I-90 closures this weekend

The westbound and center portions of Interstate 90 will be closed during much of the weekend (Sept. 16 to 19) as state Department of Transportation engineers conduct tests for Sound Transit to determine the bridge's ability to handle future light rail expansion.

The center HOV lanes will be closed from 6:30 p.m. Friday until 5 a.m., Monday, with the exception of from 2 p.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday. Westbound lanes of I-90 between Island Crest Way and Interstate 5 will be closed from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m., Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

During the tests, DOT workers will use sensitive equipment and sensors to measure movements of the bridge as eight 148,000-pound trucks are transported across portions of the bridge. The trucks will simulate the weight of light rail trains. DOT has previously run computerized versions of the tests, and officials are not concerned about causing any strain on the bridge. The weight is less than the bridge was built to withstand, though 30-percent heavier than previously approved light rail tests, according to Patrick Clarke, manager of DOT's floating bridge and special structures section.

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