City council pushes back against Metro, seeks alternatives to bus/rail interchange configurations

Councilmember Wong and Deputy Mayor Nice to join work group tasked with consulting experts

  • Thursday, July 25, 2019 3:25pm
  • News

On Tuesday, July 16, deliberation on the contentious bus/rail interchange issue (Agenda Bill 5585) nearly transported the Mercer Island City Council meeting into the next day.

The council grappled with an ambiguity that has become characteristic of the communication between city advisers, Sound Transit and King County Metro, and traipsed toward a firm motion of some kind. Councilmember Bruce Bassett was not in attendance.

Specifically, agenda bill 5585 presented the council with an opportunity to establish the city’s “guiding values” as part of an official written response to a Metro letter from May 10. In the letter, Metro had outlined its vision of a bus/rail interchange that meets its operational needs.

Instead of writing “guiding values,” the council looked to present its own configurations to Metro’s plan.

The council began questioning interim city manager Jessi Bon, public works director Jason Kintner and other city staff about the feasibility of drafting configuration alternatives.

Ultimately, the council voted 5-0 to authorize staff to spend as much as $50,000 to reassess the bus intercept configuration, including five key concerns, and report back to council at the Aug. 20 meeting.

Regarding Metro’s May 10 letter, Councilmember Benson Wong later told the Reporter, “Number one, we determined that we needed to respond. Then the question was how to do that, and I think the idea of sending back a letter outlining these potential guiding values was one idea, but as you can tell from the discussion that occurred on Tuesday, the feeling of the council and the majority of the folks at the meeting was that that was not going to be sufficient and that we needed to provide a more concrete way of presenting our view.”

King County Metro was not a party to the 2017 settlement agreement between Sound Transit and Mercer Island, but the agreement stated Metro’s concurrence was needed to move forward. Metro determined that two key refinements to the agreement’s terms were necessary for it to meet operational needs:

• “Allow for layovers at all hours of the day, with the potential to occasionally last longer than 15 minutes.”

• “Allow layover, as well as pick-up and drop-off, on the north and south side of North Mercer Way.”

The need for Metro’s approval has also signaled doom for the limited configuration option, which promised the least amount of impact to the Island.

“We have a letter from Metro that was sent to Sound Transit and forwarded to us by Sound Transit, that metro will only concur with the improved or optimal [configurations], and thus the limited does not work,” senior project manager Kirsten Taylor told Nice.

In the meeting, Deputy Mayor Salim Nice said Metro’s North Mercer Way refinement is a divergence from the settlement agreement with the potential to significantly affect pedestrian, bike and motorist safety. Later, when arguing how intersection development capacity would be affected by the refinement, he condemned the notion of a northside drop-off — “the wrong side of the street” — as “asinine.”

Councilmember Wong said that in his meeting with Metro, he repeatedly asked why one drop-off on the south side couldn’t meet Metro’s operational needs, each time receiving a different answer. The anecdote supported his appeal for an outside expert to be hired so that the city may be better equipped with its own data for negotiations.

“Let us be clear, these are not refinements, they are wholesale changes to the settlement agreement,” Councilmember Lisa Andrel said.

Mayor Debbie Bertlin cautioned against assigning malicious intent to Metro’s determinations, but both Bertlin and Wong stressed the need to push back against these potential negative impacts that were not known during the initial negotiations with Sound Transit.

A letter to city staff from Metro outlining a timeline for discussions was also a point of contention.

The letter states: “In 2021, roughly 24 months before East Link opens, Metro will lead an extensive public engagement and planning process to give Eastside and Mercer Island residents and employees the opportunity to provide input and feedback on transit services and routing when East Link opens. This process will guide Metro’s decisions about the existing Route 204, Route 630 and other transit and mobility services on Mercer Island, and throughout the Eastside. It is during this time that final decisions about specific bus routes and service levels will be made and ultimately approved by King County Council.”

Nice took issue with the proposed timeline.

“It blows my mind that we can have a conversation about a bus intercept and then a number of years later we’ll talk about routes, where do they come from, who’s on them, what are the volumes …. To me, it’s unfathomable,” Nice said. “We have to go back to Metro, we have to go back to Sound Transit, and we have to say in the spirit of collaboration and in good faith, because we do want to honor the agreement — we have to recouple that [discussion], we have to have the conversation about routes.”

With Sound Transit currently at 30 percent design and pushing toward 60 percent design, Nice noted a sense of urgency.

Interim city manager Jessi Bon, who had repeatedly prompted the council for clear directives during the discussions, took notes and read back the council’s five integral concerns:

• Loss of intersection capacity

• Pedestrian safety and the volume of crossings at North Mercer Way

• Bike safety

• Landscaping (the aesthetics and safety thereof)

• General public safety and concerns about crime

City staff suggested a tentative price estimate — $50,000 — for the workgroup to spend for the study in the next five weeks. The figure, though initially offered as a ballpark starting point, was adopted into the motion as interim city manager Jessi Bon said, “Yes, $50,000 would get us through a design exercise if the council is comfortable with allowing the working group to lead us through some options.”

“I don’t think it’s a fully baked exercise that we’re going to come back with in a month. We just need some litmus test-type ‘go or no’ … so if it’s $50,000 or $100,000, we’re not going to spend it, but we can work within that context,” Nice said.

But if the city drafts its own alternatives, would Metro or Sound even consider them? Sound Transit is a regional transit authority with the power to implement bus/rail interchanges as part of its voter-approved ST2 initiative for light rail stations, and is bound to consider city needs only as its obligation to the 2017 settlement agreement. On the other hand, Metro has identified criteria to achieve its operational needs, and now the city is trying to determine whether that criteria is truly the only way.

“[Sound Transit and Metro] will listen if we come up with our own design, on our own dime, and if it meets the terms that have been outlined and operational needs of Metro,” public works director Jason Kintner said.

Wong said the recognition of the critical importance of Mercer Island to any large-scale regional transit system may be the best point of leverage in the coming discussions with Sound Transit and Metro.

During the coming discussions with Metro and Sound Transit, Wong said “all options will be looked at.” Those options may even include revisiting the 80th Street configuration, so long as Sound Transit, Metro and the city workgroup can agree on palatable volume figures.

“I’m going to be interested in seeing, with the number of buses projected now, whether it does make 80th a viable option,” Wong said. “With any option, there are pros and cons, so these are things that need to be identified and brought back to the community so that the community can have at least a chance to see — and again, as council weighs them— to see what the true impact and benefits of each one will be.”

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