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Islanders disapprove ICW 'road-diet'

More than 40 Island residents in favor of building a traffic signal at the intersection of Island Crest Way and Merrimount attended a community drop-in meeting on the subject last Tuesday. The open house, organized by the city of Mercer Island and the Island Crest Way (ICW) Citizen Panel, provided an opportunity for citizens to learn about the two ICW improvement options chosen by the panel. Neither option included a traffic signal.

According to Citizen Panel member Deborah Ehlers, the vast majority of those who attended the open house disagreed with the panel's support of two "road diet" options for the Island Crest Way and Merrimount intersection. Both proposals trim Island Crest Way to three lanes south of Merrimount and S.E. 44th Street, and include the existing traffic barrier that prevents southbound vehicles from turning left onto 44th Street and eastbound vehicles from crossing Island Crest Way from Merrimount to 44th Street.

"I paged through the comments left behind [by Island residents] and got the idea that people were overwhelmingly against the three-lane option," said Ehlers. "I would say there was almost a passion against it."

Beverly and Eddie Horwitz, who have lived on West Mercer Way near Merrimount for 15 years, are two examples of this passion. According to Eddie, his wife completely avoids Merrimount and Island Crest Way because she is so wary of the dangers posed at the intersection — even with the current barrier.

"It's a very, very dangerous intersection. My wife drives all the way back to 78th and then up to Island Crest just so she doesn't have to make that dangerous turn," the Island resident said. "There have been many accidents and near accidents. People are very confused [with the current barrier] and don't know where to go. A traffic signal is the only option."

A total of 65 people signed into the ICW and Merrimount drop-in meeting, which was held at the Community Center on March 3. Thirty-nine visitors left written comments, 24 of which expressed a strong desire for the city to install a traffic light at the site. Two people wrote that the intersection should either remain as it currently is or a traffic light should be added. The other comments expressed a variety of opinions.

City Mayor Jim Pearman said that, despite the statements of disapproval, the Citizen Panel will not hold another meeting on the matter. Its recommendation for an Island Crest Way road diet still stands.

Pearman, who sits on the panel along with Councilmember Dan Grausz, feels that the opinions expressed at the drop-in meeting do not accurately reflect those of the greater community.

"That was not just a random group of people [that came to the meeting]. It was a group that had called and solicited others to come and promote one concept," Pearman said. "That is all that [the drop-in comments] tell me."

The mayor explained how, in creating the Citizen Panel last September, the City Council hoped to provide the public with the same professional insight, data and opportunity of choice that it had been presented with. Grausz and Pearman serve as facilitators in the panel. They do not carry voting rights. Based on the research KPG presented the City Council in 2007, Pearman said, Councilmembers rejected an ICW traffic signal in favor of a three-lane road diet. The Council decided to "try out" this option and subsequently created the existing road barrier between Merrimount and S.E. 40th Street.

According to Pearman, the current set-up has already improved the dangerous intersection by slowing traffic. It has also provided empirical data for the city to look at.

"The No. 1 complaint we got was that Island Crest Way was unsafe because of speeding cars. Since this demo project, the high speeds have slowed down. Now we have real data for this," Pearman said.

Providing insight for the discussion among ICW panel members, Pearman said that in the beginning, many on the panel were in favor of a traffic light. However, after listening to KPG engineers and reviewing their data, the Citizen Panel voted 13 against two for a three-lane solution. The mayor emphasized that, in making their decision, panel members carefully considered three criteria: safety, efficiency/throughput and cost. In the end, he said, installing a traffic light failed each category.

"People have this misguided notion that traffic lights are safe. Some of the worst accidents happen at stoplights," Pearman said, adding that the panel — as well as the City Council — genuinely want what is best for the community. "There is a realization that the issue of safety is bigger than Merrimount. We're just trying to make a good decision."

The City Council will make a decision on the Island Crest Way and Merrimount intersection in the near future.

For more information, visit the city's Web site: www.mercergov.org.

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