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Island Crest Way improvement project dismantled by Mercer Island Council members

The long-discussed project to improve Island Crest Way this year has been scuttled after a flurry of motions and amendments by the City Council shifted the funding to resurfacing other Island roads and installing lights for two crosswalks on Monday evening, June 21.

The city’s plan to move forward with the Island Crest Way corridor project stalled after a protest was filed concerning the original construction bid. As the City Council gave the nod to rebid the project, it turned its attention to the next item on the agenda, the six-year Transportation Improvement Plan.

Then, within minutes, two Council members, expressing their beliefs that there are more pressing road needs than ICW, essentially upended the ICW project by taking money from it to use elsewhere. Amendments were made and remade to move the money, with talk about fiscal responsibility. Safety priorities on the Island’s main corridor were hotly debated.

The resulting decision moved $650,000 from the 2010 Island Crest Way corridor project budget to the 2011 street overlays budget to perform work outlined in the TIP and for crosswalks. The move essentially pushes the Island Crest Way project out at least one year or more. It is unclear if and how funds can shifted from 2010 into the future.

“They didn’t un-decide the Island Crest Way corridor project,” said City Manager Rich Conrad later. “They just decided to un-fund it.”

There is some money for ICW in the TIP plan for 2012, but it is to be used for overlays or repaving just part of the corridor, he said.

The whirlwind of motions, multiple amendments and even an “amended amendment” resulted in the City Council’s decision to adopt a sliced-and-diced variation on ‘option C,’ the third TIP alternative presented to the group after the seven-member Council failed to agree on either ‘option A’ or ‘option B’ earlier this month.

It all began after the Council unanimously voted to re-bid the Island Crest Way project. The Council then moved to the 2011-2016 Transportation Improvement Plan.

The Council, fresh from a weekend session on city finances and the economy, was determined to save whatever money they could.

Council member Dan Grausz made an initial motion to accept the newly formulated ‘option C,’ for the TIP plan, as it was the least expensive of the three alternatives that city staff had put together for the project. One area of difference between the plans was the amount of money spent on street repaving throughout the Island.

Council member Mike Cero stated that in his view, street maintenance had been underfunded and that street overlays (repaving) were overdue.

“Street maintenance is one of the most important services that we provide,” he said, pointing at studies that showed many Island roadways were in need of repair.

Abruptly, Council member Steve Litzow cited the need to save money, then moved to amend the main motion to shift $650,000 from the already approved 2010 Island Crest Way corridor project budget to the TIP for residential street overlays. “I agree that we need to work on streets,” Litzow said. “As for the Island Crest Way corridor project, we do not have a strong need for that now.”

Council member Cero quickly seconded the motion, and Council member Grady, who had previously championed the Island Crest Way project, also agreed with the proposed change. “I do agree we have a residential overlay problem, and we need a least cost option,” he said. He also agreed that the Island Crest Way portion could be delayed.

However, monies set for the ICW project are already approved for 2010. The TIP covers the years 2011 through 2016. It is not clear if or how the money can be moved from 2010 into 2011 or beyond. But that fact did not come up in the discussion.

The amendment passed on a 4-3 vote.

Mayor Jim Pearman, Council members Bruce Bassett and Grausz voted against the change and expressed their dismay and some outrage over the seemingly outright dismissal of the Island Crest Way project after some four years of engineering work and an extensive public process.

But the Council was not yet done.

The loss of $650,000 from the Island Crest Way corridor project would have eliminated the new crosswalk planned for a controversial crossing in the 4200 block of Island Crest Way. A Mercer Island High School student was recently hit by a car while in the painted crossing, and there have been multiple instances of pedestrian and vehicle-related accidents in the vicinity.

In order to preserve the crosswalk plans, Grady made an amendment to the main motion to reinstate the S.E. 42nd Street crossing described in the 2010 Island Crest Way corridor project. Cero seconded the motion.

Before the Council voted on the new amendment, Bassett amended Grady’s previous amendment to install an identical pedestrian crossing signal at S.E. 47th Street. Grady seconded Bassett’s amendment.

Prior to the vote on these changes, Grausz accused the City Council of “legislating on the fly.”

Both Grady’s amendment and Bassett’s amendment passed 5-2; Pearman and Grausz dissented.

Pearman said he was “disappointed” and “stunned” at the City Council’s decision-making process on June 21.

“My head hurts,” he said. “This is crazy.”

Litzow disagreed.

“We’ve done this before,” he said. “I don’t see what you guys are so concerned about. Trust me, this is not the worst we’ve been doing it; it’s just the most recent.”

As the discussion wound to its conclusion, Council members remained divided on whether or not safety was the primary reason for ICW improvements or not.

“We are moving asphalt to asphalt,” Litzow said. “Safety is not the priority for Island Crest Way [changes]. The issue for safety is crossing.”

“For Island Crest Way, the issue is safety,” Bassett said emphatically. “Now we want to fix potholes and ‘alligatoring’ on residential streets rather than reducing accidents by half. That is a sad state of affairs.”

“I was never convinced that the road diet will really be about safety,” Cero said. “I think [changes at Merrimount] would end up at a higher accident rate.”

Grady explained that given lean economic times and that ICW is unfriendly to both bikes and pedestrians, [the change to take the money from the ICW project] makes it simple to enhance non-motorized transportation around the Island with a limited budget. He said that by taking care of the crosswalks and fixing the Merrimount intersection, the rest of the funds could be used to do road work around the Island and improve or widen pavement on East and West Mercer Ways. That, he said, would make it safer for riders and walkers.

A final amendment, proposed by Grausz and seconded by Litzow, called for a reduction to the residential street overlay budget to $480,000 in 2011 and $471,000 in 2012. The change would leave $225,000 [in the ICW project] for the S.E. 42nd and S.E. 47th Street crosswalks in 2010. That amendment unanimously passed.

Following a final reading of the final amended motion by City Clerk Ali Spietz, City Manager Rich Conrad reminded the City Council of the consequences of their decision.

“By your last vote, staff will not rebid the Island Crest Way corridor project,” he said, adding that the new bid will be pared down and contain no time schedule. “We’ll get it to you when we can.”

The Council did leave the door open a crack for future ICW work when they discussed the next item on the agenda, the capital improvement plan. A line item on that plan has money set aside for pavement work on ICW between Merrimount and S.E. 53rd Streets — the nine blocks that were to be narrowed to three lanes. The Council voted to consider using that future money to reinstate the road diet there.

Just why the Council decided the way they did is a mystery to Elliot Newman, former Mercer Island mayor, Planning Commission chair and 30-plus-year Island resident. Newman served on the citizen advisory panel to consider improvements to the Island Crest Way corridor and vet safety concerns at the intersection with Merrimount Drive. He is also affiliated with the “Citizens for a Better Island Crest Way Corridor” group.

“They should reconsider the vote they took and go back to the original game plan,” he said. Newman, who worked as an environmental engineering consultant for more than 40 years, worried that pedestrian and vehicle accidents will escalate if nothing is done. He predicts that traffic along the corridor will only increase with the opening of the new PEAK center.

At first Newman was pleased with the City Council’s decision to move forward with the Island Crest Way corridor project last Monday night in spite of the rebidding.

“But within an hour of that decision, out of the blue there was a comment about financial hardship and boom, boom, boom, they killed the [Island Crest Way] project,” he said.

The decision to shift money from the Island Crest Way project this year to street resurfacing next year baffles Newman. In his mind, street resurfacing will not decrease serious accidents and possible deaths. The Island Crest Way project, on the other hand, “would strongly decrease accidents” and possible fatalities, he said.

“You just don’t take the first thing on the table and cut and kill it,” he said. “They should have asked staff to generate a list of projects and then prioritize them.”

“The irony of this is that this project probably had one of the largest public processes that I’ve seen in 30 years.”

For more information on the Island Crest Way corridor project, preliminary budget numbers and the 2011-2016 Transportation Improvement Plan, go to www.mercergov.org. For the Reporter’s coverage of the ICW issue, go to www.mi-reporter.com.

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