Concurrency plan brings up questions on Mercer Island Town Center traffic

Parking in downtown Mercer Island has been a recurring topic at City Council meetings for years, but at last week’s meeting, some members called for a comprehensive plan that also includes traffic, crosswalks and intersections.

The council was reviewing an amendment to its transportation concurrency code when other concerns started to arise. Concurrency — which specifies that adequate public facilities should be in place to serve new development as it occurs — has been a big issue in nearby cities, including Sammamish and Issaquah.

“Issaquah had a development moratorium [in 1997-2000] because most of their intersections were failing concurrency tests… and the City Council wasn’t willing to degrade the level of service to allow development to occur,” said Scott Greenberg, director of Mercer Island’s Development Services Group (DSG).

The Sammamish City Council approved an emergency moratorium on Oct. 3, 2017 on most new development until city leaders can complete their work developing a revised traffic concurrency policy.

Concurrency is one of the goals of the state’s Growth Management Act. As part of the requirement to develop a comprehensive plan, jurisdictions are required to establish level-of-service standards (LOS) for arterials, transit service and other facilities. Transportation is the only area of concurrency that specifies denial of development if LOS standards cannot be met.

Before beginning negotiations with Sound Transit, the Mercer Island City Council decided to set its LOS standard as C in the Town Center and surrounding areas, and D in other parts of the Island. Sound Transit had already pledged to make traffic improvements as part of mitigation for closing the center lanes of Interstate 90 to build East Link light rail tracks and a station there, and its recent $10.1 million settlement with Mercer Island could pay for even more improvements.

Issaquah’s current moratorium, which is still in place, was adopted at the Sept. 6, 2016 council meeting as a way to halt development not meeting the standards of the 2012 Central Issaquah Plan. Mercer Island enacted a similar moratorium on downtown development from February 2015 to June 2016 when it was rewriting its Town Center development code. Now, the council may look to revisit parts of that plan.

Several City Council candidates have called for the city to establish a comprehensive parking plan to prepare for light rail and support local businesses, including the planned Mercer Island Center for the Arts (MICA). The council recently reversed the decision, made during the Town Center code rewrite, to restripe 77th Avenue Southeast to create more parking spots downtown.

Deputy Mayor Debbie Bertlin said she was sensing anxiety about the Town Center, not necessarily about the new code, but the impacts of changes to I-90 and recent construction like the Hadley apartment building. She said she has heard requests for a crosswalk to be built between Hadley and Aljoya.

Councilmember Dan Grausz also expressed concerns about precluding future development in Town Center, especially along Southeast 27th Street.

“That’s the street where the congestion is. I don’t understand what our options are,” Grausz said. “Say there’s a future development at the Walgreens site… How would we respond to that?”

Grausz noted that the street can’t be widened, and there are already traffic lights at every intersection, raising questions about how developers could accomplish the goal of concurrency. Councilmember Salim Nice said the city could consider roundabouts, or other strategies.

The city does not yet have a concurrency ordinance, but it does have policies in the comprehensive plan that address concurrency, according the council’s agenda bill.

Greenberg suggested that the city revisit concurrency later, with more data. He said the council could tie it in with its review of the comprehensive plan, which has a transportation element in need of an update. City Manager Julie Underwood said the council should review concurrency along with its Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) and Capital Improvement Plan (CIP).

Underwood said the city is still working on how to use the Sound Transit settlement funds, and would schedule a community meeting in late November or early December to discuss it with residents. She said the impacts from the I-90 center lane and Island Crest Way westbound on-ramp closures and restrictions extend beyond Town Center, to areas around West Mercer Elementary and near Southeast 40th Street.

During negotiations with Sound Transit, the city expressed concerns that single occupant vehicle traffic, which could use Island Crest Way to get to Seattle before June 2017, would be diverted to downtown Mercer Island and near school areas, affecting traffic as well as cyclists and pedestrians.

Under the settlement agreement, Sound Transit will pay $5.3 million to Mercer Island to address vehicle, bicycle and pedestrian access issues resulting from the closure of the center roadway or fund “last-mile solutions” that enable Islanders to access transit without driving, and $4.6 million to provide about 100 additional commuter parking stalls during the East Link construction period and build permanent commuter parking spaces on the Island. The agreement also addresses I-90 emergency response and bus-rail integration.

The agreement is scheduled for council approval on Oct. 17, Underwood said.

For more, see www.mercergov.org/CouncilMeetings.

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