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New city transportation manager takes on I-90
In October, Nick Afzali took on the city of Mercer Island’s newest position: director of transportation. Three months into the job, Afzali is already knee-deep in transportation issues from I-90 to Island Crest Way. Having previously worked for the cities of Auburn, Maple Valley and Renton, the new manager has plenty of governmental experience. He received his master’s in engineering from Oregon State University. He is an old acquaintance of Development Services director Steve Lancaster, as they worked together in Auburn and on projects for Renton and Tukwila. He also knows the Island well, having spent many Saturday mornings cycling around the “Island loop” and back to his home in Bellevue. As Afzali commented himself, “I’ve been driving across I-90 and Mercer Island for the last 19 years.” The manager feels that although I-90 is the heart of Island transportation issues today, there are a number of community projects demanding equal attention.
Question: What are your main priorities as transportation manager for 2009?
Answer: First of all, I’m going to look at the regional transportation issues, mainly I-90, and there are four topics related to I-90. One of them is potential tolling; we still don’t know if everyone is going to be tolled. As you know, this is the DOT’s [Department of Transportation’s] project. They’re trying to raise adequate revenue to replace 520, and in order to do that, they feel they need to toll both bridges. Yet they are considering many options.
The second project on 1-90 is the expansion of joints. For this one, we are looking at what potentially adverse impacts will occur during the closures.
The third issue is the light rail. As you know, the ST2 [Sound Transit 2] package passed a couple of months ago. So the center rail on I-90 is going to be converted to light rail, and the station will be very close to the Town Center. In terms of construction, the goal is to close the center lane by the fourth quarter of 2014, then construction for light rail and the station will start. The horizon year for the station’s operation is 2020.
The last I-90 project is R8A, a preferred [HOV] option for I-90. Right now, our HOV lanes are all in the center bridge. Basically, the meaning of R8A is that they will put HOV lanes like I-5 and 405 on the outer lanes, allowing this center lane to become light rail. The nice thing about R8A and Sound Transit is: now that ST2 has passed, we know that these projects will happen. As for the I-90 tolling and the joint replacement project, we don’t yet know the outcomes. So these topics are going to keep us quite occupied.
Question: What makes working for Mercer Island unique?
Answer: I’ve worked in a number of government agencies over the past years, from the city of Beaverton, Ore., to Maple Valley to Auburn. What I’ve noticed is that the participation level of Mercer Island residents is huge. This is great. You see that Islanders are interested in issues, that they are taking the time and effort to come to meetings. In fact, people are really doing their homework before coming to the meetings. The first meeting I had [in October], we were working on updating the bike and pedestrian plan, and almost 100 people showed up at 7 in the evening, which is very impressive. Islanders are well informed and educated about the efficiency of our transportation system here, the things that are working and the things that they want. Also, I’ve been very impressed with our City Council. The citizens are very educated and knowledgeable individuals, and that’s very encouraging.
Question: What are your main responsibilities as transportation manager?
Answer: It’s my understanding that there used to be a transportation planning position and that this was upgraded. The levels of responsibility were increased to focus more on the engineering aspect than the planning part of it. As for my roles, I am more engaged and involved with I-90 projects because of my experience with Sound Transit and WSDOT and also because of my educational background — I have a master’s in engineering. For example, we’re building a couple of traffic lights downtown, so this is something I feel I have the background in; getting those traffic lights designed, working with a consultant and getting them constructed.
Question: Considering the recent boom in Island development, do you think we are at a crucial stage for transportation planning?
Answer: In terms of the Island needs, we’ve got developments that are occurring in the Town Center and also in the residential neighborhoods. Of course, when you look at downtown Bellevue and Mercer Island in terms of density — residential, office and retail — we’re much smaller, but I think the system we have is a multi-motor system. We’re going to be relying on our freeway system, but at the same time there are Sound Transit services and King County Metro services. We understand that we don’t have adequate Park and Ride facilities here, that people parking downtown have business needs, so — yes, it’s a multi-modal system. We’re also looking at bike and pedestrian needs. As a resident of Bellevue, I enjoy cycling with my wife around Mercer Island. I feel that I have a lot of attachment to the community since I live so close. In this sense, I can grasp the Island’s needs. It’s just a matter of how we prioritize and implement them.