East Link light rail will extend 14 miles from Seattle to the Eastside, operating in the recently closed center roadway of Interstate 90. This is the first time light rail will be built across a floating bridge. Image courtesy of Sound Transit

East Link light rail construction underway on I-90 bridge

Sound Transit briefed media on June 28 on the East Link light rail construction that is now underway in the center lanes of the Homer M. Hadley floating bridge across Lake Washington, between Mercer Island and Seattle.

The Interstate 90 center roadway closed about a month ago for East Link construction, though drivers will not see work being done until around 2019. The work being done now is under the bridge, in the floating pontoons that hold it up.

The center roadway closure has altered commute patterns and times in Mercer Island, and brought up questions about the project. Sound Transit will hold a construction kickoff open house from 5-7 p.m. July 12 at the Mercer Island Community and Event Center, where residents can meet the construction management team and contractor and learn about East Link construction, the Mercer Island Station design and early work, including the I-90 seismic retrofit and post-tensioning, a process that uses cables to compress the concrete pontoons together to strengthen the bridge.

This summer’s construction activities include demolition of the barrier on the south side of the bridge and work inside the pontoons to prepare for post-tensioning. Construction on the bridge will continue through 2020.

Most of the temporary traffic control measures to mitigate impacts on the Island wrapped up last week, with only final adjustments remaining. The new signal at 77th Avenue Southeast and North Mercer Way was expected to be activated, and the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) was completing some last tasks related to the construction of the new HOV lane in each direction of I-90, including lane striping adjustments near the East Channel area and overhead sign removal.

Recent updates have been made to the city’s light rail FAQ page, such as an entry comparing various regional mitigation packages.

To get started on its traffic and safety mitigation plan, including how to spend the $10.1 million tentative settlement approved by the Sound Transit board on June 22, the city of Mercer Island held its own kickoff meeting with the community a few weeks ago.

At the June 19 City Council meeting, City Manager Julie Underwood said she expected the mitigation work to take 12-18 months, and that the feedback received from the community would help the city prepare its Capital Improvement Program (CIP) and Transportation Improvement Plan (TIP).

Underwood proposed spending $300,000 on a contract with consultant Transpo to help the city with the public process, along with data collection and project planning.

She said that once the projects and their relationship to East Link are identified, the costs would be eligible for reimbursement from the Sound Transit settlement funds.

The council decided to appropriate $50,000 initially and spend the rest in phases, pending approval of the Sound Transit settlement and city staff developing a more defined scope of work.

Mayor Bruce Bassett said that the city should wait until the fall to start designing the mitigation projects, because that’s when traffic may pick up again, or have settled into a more regular pattern.

“You can’t judge it by day one, or even month one or month two,” Bassett said. “We have the gift of some time here in that things haven’t been as bad as we feared they would be on the ground… That’s something that we should take advantage of.”

Bassett said that the one exception would be short-term parking, which he said the city should put on a fast track. Assistant City Manager Kirsten Taylor said she was working with Sound Transit on parking options, which should be identified by Aug. 1. A comprehensive parking plan is scheduled to be presented to the council on Aug. 7, Underwood said.

Bassett, along with other council members, said that the council should be conservative with its mitigation funds, even though they will be reimbursed by Sound Transit.

“We’ve been spending money at a crazy rate with the lawsuit,” Bassett said. “If I’ve got a dollar to spend, I’d much rather spend it on bus service or an intersection improvement, rather than on a planning process… It’s not free money, it’s part of the pool.”

The expenditure was approved by a 4-3 vote, with Councilmembers Dave Wisenteiner, Wendy Weiker and Jeff Sanderson voting against it.

East Link will extend light rail 14 miles from downtown Seattle to Mercer Island, downtown Bellevue and the Overlake area of Redmond via I-90, with 10 stations. All segments of the East Link extension are now under construction. The entire line will be operational in 2023. In 2024, Sound Transit will open a 3.7-mile extension further east to new stations in Redmond, with funding approved in November 2016.

Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff speaks to media about light rail construction on the floating bridge. Photo via Twitter

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