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Clibborn, Plano take center stage at City Council planning session

The Mercer Island City Council met for its 2009 planning session on Jan. 23-25, focusing on Island transportation issues, I-90 tolling and the city’s relationship with the school district, among other priorities. Some key guests attended the three-day retreat, held at the Community Center at Mercer View, including Mercer Island School District Superintendent Gary Plano and Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-41, who addressed one of the most heated topics on the Island.

Tolling I-90

Indeed, the potential tolling of the I-90 bridge to fund replacing the SR-520 bridge is a cause of concern for Islanders. The Legislature has asked for a financing plan including $1.5 billion to $2 billion in tolls. One scenario is to toll both 520 and I-90. The option has elicited outcry from Island residents and employees, many of whom use the bridge daily.

Speaking with ease and confidence, Clibborn assured Councilmembers and citizens in the room that she would do her best to fight against the initiative. Yet it cannot simply “be about Mercer Island.”

“I can’t go up there and say Mercer Island doesn’t want tolling — I’d be laughed at. It has to be presented as part of the greater interest — the I-90 corridor,” the state representative said. “Mercer Island is better off with my message that tolling I-90 doesn’t pass the fairness test.”

Clibborn added that there are alternative ways to fund 520.

“Double HOT lanes do the trick,” she said, referring to tolled highway lanes that provide voluntary users with a faster travel option. “My fear with [I-90] tolling is that if we don’t do it right, we will lose it all together. People need to feel that it’s fair.”

Catching her listeners up with the legislative process, Clibborn added that the decision “is now in legislators’ hands. What I’m waiting for is the governor’s recommendation.”

After a brief discussion of the topic, City Manager Chip Conrad commended Clibborn for her efforts.

“I feel pretty confident that we’re well represented and don’t have to worry about I-90 tolling in 2010 or the future,” he said.

Island Crest Way

Another issue of concern on the Island is the restructuring of Island Crest Way. Along with I-90 tolling, Island Crest Way has been the subject of much argumentation over the past year — in particular, its intersection with Merrimount Drive and S.E. 44th Street.

Last fall, the City Council initiated a public involvement process — creating a panel of 15 citizens plus two Councilmembers — to help decide what to do with this historically dangerous intersection. The Council had previously approved converting Island Crest Way from the current four-lane configuration to a three-lane configuration. Yet based on the high level of community interest in the project, a decision on the matter will be postponed until additional public outreach is completed, the city decided.

The panel met last week to discuss three options designed by KPG Engineering. Two “road diet” options have since been agreed on. The idea of installing a stoplight at the intersection was eliminated earlier this year because it was too expensive.

The two current scenarios chosen for Island Crest Way are: to improve the current lanes and re-stripe the roadway section between Merrimount Drive and 86th Avenue S.E. to a three-lane configuration (S.E. 44th Street is open to outgoing right-turn only and closed to incoming traffic) or to create three lanes south of Merrimount and four lanes north of Merrimount (S.E. 44th Street is open to outgoing right turn only and closed to incoming traffic).

During the planning session, Mayor Jim Pearman said that he felt the decision, once made, “would be close to unanimous.”

The Council also discussed bringing the topic of driving problems along West Mercer and East Mercer Way — primarily, the conflict between cyclists and drivers — to a new priority level in 2009.

School district/city collaboration

Invited as part of a mutual plan to strengthen relations between the school district and the city, Superintendent Gary Plano spoke to Councilmembers on the planning session’s second day. Setting the tone for discussion, Plano opened with a draft policy statement on the district and city’s relationship.

“Within the limitations established by state law, the city and school district agree that to the fullest extent possible, the two institutions should continue to search for areas of cooperation and collaboration which build upon past,” the inter-local draft policy reads.

Admitting that there had been “train wrecks” between the district and the city on certain issues in their past, Plano expressed optimism that such discordance could be avoided through regular meetings and clear communication.

“The two bodies do operate differently, but differently isn’t better or worse,” he said. “We have, and I hope we can continue cooperating in each others’ mutual interests.”

The city and school district currently face several opportunities to demonstrate their potential for collaboration. This was touched on at the retreat.

The creation of a shared bus barn and maintenance station, built on city land, but used by both bodies, was thrown onto the table for discussion. The issue was proposed last year, when the district expressed interest in moving its buses from behind the administration building to the lot behind City Hall. Not only are the buses a neighborhood “eyesore” in their current location, but they cause much disturbance to those living in the area.

Revisiting the topic, the Council deliberated on whether “they really wanted to go forward” with this move. In the end, it was agreed that both parties would continue talking about the plan in detail and return to the issue later this year.

“Our job is to be at the table while you develop a master plan. When there is a nexus, we can work on these issues,” Councilmember Mike Grady told Plano.

Indeed, “nexus” was the buzzword that ultimately determined the two parties’ future relationship.

“The scope of this discussion is widening to anywhere where we have a nexus of interests,” Grady said, referring to a number of ideas — from sharing ball fields to relocating the district administrative office, to the Youth and Family Services counselors servicing the high school — brought forth during the conversation.

Concluding their discussion, both Plano and the City Council agreed to proceed with the goals stated in the inter-local draft agreement and to work together on “issues in which we have a nexus of interests.”

A number of other topics — from PEAK to Island sustainability to Town Center parking arrangements — were also discussed at the 2009 planning session. A full list of the agenda can be viewed on the city’s Web site: www.mercergov.org.

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