Interstate 90 referendum in limbo Campaign issue for council candidates

By Ruth Longoria' email='

Whether Islanders will retain their "right" to single occupant vehicle (SOV) use of the Interstate 90 high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes is moot in some residents' eyes as Sound Transit moves forward with plans to test the bridge for potential light rail conversion. However, SOV use as it relates to I-90 looks to be a key issue for the City Council races of 2005. It's been a year since the fateful amendment that, some say, ultimately gave away Mercer Island motorists' right to drive solo in I-90's HOV lanes. In August 2004, a majority of the City Council -- councilmembers Dan Grausz, Jim Pearman, Bryan Cairns, El Jahncke and Mayor Alan Merkle -- voted to approve an amendment to the 1976 agreement. The amendment said that Islanders would give up their right to the center HOV lanes for single occupant vehicles. Many Islanders, including City Council candidate Lisa Belden, are adamant that their right to drive in the center, reversible I-90 HOV lanes was part of the 1976 Memorandum of Agreement between Mercer Island, Seattle, Bellevue, King County and the state Department of Transportation. Belden spearheaded a petition and campaign to override the council vote and preserve the Islander's right to the center lanes. She formed Save MI SOV and got more than 4,500 signatures on a petition to put the issue to a vote of the people. Then, Belden filed a referendum with the county, which would have put the issue on the November 2004 ballot. But that didn't come to pass. A lawsuit was filed by a group of Island residents claiming the referendum was illegal since the agreement and amendment weren't something which Islanders could have veto power. A King County Superior Court Judge issued an injunction in September 2004 to remove the referendum from the ballot.

The referendum advocates appealed that decision, seemingly with the go-ahead of that same judge who said several times during the court hearing that he thought "the matter would be more appropriately heard at a higher level such as the state Supreme Court." However, the lawsuit against the referendum was withdrawn after the injunction, which means the referendum could again go to the voters.

Again, that's not likely. Belden said she fears the lawsuit would be brought up again if she went forward with attempting to put the referendum on the ballot. "It could end up a vicious circle," she said. But she's not ready to give up on the issue. I-90 is one of the main reasons Belden is running for City Council. She's not alone. Now, with three of the six council candidates using I-90 as a selling point for their campaigns, it's important to look at the details of the agreement. There are several unanswered questions, such as "was SOV use of the HOV lanes a part of the original agreement?" Or, as one group of residents insist, "was it a use that was allowed but never mandated?" "It was a lucky happenstance that went on so long, everyone took it for granted," Myra Lupton said of the residents' SOV use on I-90. Lupton was among the Islanders who pushed forward the lawsuit against the referendum. Although she's correct in some of her assumptions, there's a little more involved here, according to former Island mayor and former state Transportation Commission chair Aubrey Davis. "The agreement was that we could use (the HOV lanes) as long as we didn't slow down traffic to below 40 miles-per-hour," said Davis, a 45-year Island resident. "And in the long term, (the HOV lanes) would be used for transit." One can assume that Davis would know the details of the 1976 memorandum agreement -- he wrote it, along with former mayor Ben Werner, who is named on the lawsuit along with Lupton.

How the debate will end is anyone's guess. However, Davis is confident the City Council amendment was the right thing to do and the issue will be resolved, possibly with the city retaining the right to use the HOV lanes, only in the outer lanes of the I-90 roadway. "How would it have looked if the Island was the only city (that) didn't move forward for transit?" Davis asked. "We're not likely to be told You can't use (the HOV lanes) now, good luck.' We have three good legislators from the Island who are working for us on transportation issues, and as long as they remain tough, we're OK," he said. "But, we do need to get together with Bellevue and Seattle on things so we don't have any opposition in Olympia. And, this will all be resolved eventually, though not likely before November."

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