About 200 community members attended the Feb. 13 Mercer Island City Council meeting, many wearing red stickers encouraging the city to “reset” its negotiations with Sound Transit and the Washington State Department of Transportation regarding access to Interstate 90.
They cheered as the council announced that it would take legal action against the agencies, citing concerns with mobility, safety and “breach of contract,” as Mercer Island representatives feel that longstanding regional agreements guaranteeing access to I-90 are not being honored, and negotiations up to this point have not been productive.
Under the agreements, WSDOT and Sound Transit said they would take steps to preserve and mitigate any impacts to mobility to Mercer Islander residents prior to the closure of the I-90 center roadway. The city believes that “time has run out,” as the roadway closes in June.
The council voted unanimously to sue Sound Transit and WSDOT, seeking to temporarily halt the closure of the I-90 center roadway until Mercer Island’s concerns are addressed. It also passed two six-month moratoriums related to the permitting and development of projects in the Mercer Island I-90 right of way, developments that would affect the level of service at Mercer Island intersections.
“After two years of negotiation, we still have not reached a satisfactory agreement with Sound Transit and WSDOT that would avoid the diversion of heavy commuter traffic to local neighborhood streets and school zones. No community would accept that. With the June closure approaching, we had no other choice but to exercise our available legal options,” Mayor Bruce Bassett said in a statement.
The Environmental Impact Statement used to evaluate the impacts of the East Link light rail project assumed that Mercer Island single occupant vehicle (SOV) and high occupancy vehicle (HOV) traffic would continue to have full access to westbound I-90 via the Island Crest Way on-ramp, “a crucial element of safe and efficient traffic flow,” according to a Feb. 13 city press release. The privilege to drive solo in the transit lanes was granted to Mercer Island traffic, not just Island residents, in a 1976 agreement.
On Feb. 1, WSDOT notified the city that it intends to close the Island Crest Way ramp to SOV traffic, citing guidance it received from the Federal Highway Administration in August 2016 that that would be illegal.
Before the Feb. 13 meeting, city representatives met with Gov. Jay Inslee at the request of Congressman Adam Smith. State representatives Lisa Wellman, Tana Senn and Judy Clibborn, all Islanders, also attended.
“The meeting offered the prospect of a last‑minute solution, but the city’s legal team believes time has run out,” according to the release.
The city did not name the FHWA as a party in its legal action. In a statement, Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff said that “neither [WSDOT] nor Sound Transit are empowered to reverse the Federal Highway Administration’s decisions regarding access by single-occupant Mercer Island traffic to the new HOV lanes across Lake Washington.”
“Legal agreements dating back to before the I-90 floating bridge was even built dedicated the center lanes for public transit,” Rogoff stated. “More than eight years ago regional voters approved the funding to build the East Link light rail project on those lanes. It is highly regrettable that the city of Mercer Island is now attempting to delay the project in mid-construction … Delays to the East Link project pose significant risks of increased costs to regional taxpayers and significant delays to opening the project in 2023.”
City Manager Julie Underwood said that though the city believes this is the right move, there are risks to litigation. The cost could be more than $1 million, and the outcome is uncertain. During a public comment period after the council announced its decision, many Islanders offered to donate to the city to fund the lawsuit. Councilmembers encouraged residents to contact other elected officials, including members of the Sound Transit board, to voice their concerns.
Underwood said that the city’s goal is not to stop light rail, but to protect the community as it is being built.
Deputy Mayor Debbie Bertlin said that throughout negotiations, she has thought about the tradition that Mercer Island has had in being a good partner, securing win-win solutions for its residents and the region. Councilmembers said they believe that through legal action, a mutually agreeable outcome is possible.
Within the month, the city will file a complaint with the King County Superior Court that would request the court delay Sound Transit and WSDOT from closing the I-90 center roadway and Island Crest Way until the parties reach an agreement about mobility and access issues for Mercer Island.
At the meeting, Bassett said that the city had been trying to negotiate in good faith with Sound Transit and WSDOT, but the ramp restriction was “a bridge too far.” Island Crest Way is the city’s only four-lane arterial, and was designed to funnel traffic up the Island to the freeway. The traffic diversion to other I-90 on-ramps, especially 76th Avenue Southeast and West Mercer Way, would cause significant adverse impacts to the city’s Town Center and school zones.
“The financial impacts of traffic congestion will be significant,” Terry Moreman, executive director of the Mercer Island Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement. “While our residents are very supportive of the local economy, our small businesses cannot survive without their customers who come from off the Island.”
Councilmember Benson Wong reiterated that the city is not seeking any special privileges, just the enforcement of historic agreements. The city’s overarching argument is that “a deal’s a deal.” Wong also said that the agencies should ensure that the traffic diversions “don’t create unacceptable risks to our community.”
The other ordinances adopted by the council — a Transportation Concurrency and Essential Public Facilities Moratorium, and a Public Institution Zoning Moratorium — were intended to secure sufficient time for the city to amend its code.
“They will preserve the status quo and ensure that the expected impacts from diverted traffic will be adequately mitigated and not cause a decline in the city’s transportation level of service standards for local streets,” according to the city’s statement.
Bassett affirmed Islanders’ support for light rail as a whole, in addition to the council’s continued interest in having a solutions-oriented dialogue with Sound Transit and WSDOT focused on preserving access to westbound I-90 via Island Crest Way, as well as loss of mobility mitigation for the long-term.
“Islanders approved the East Link Light Rail Project by a conclusive margin, and as a community, we still believe in the benefits the project will provide to the region and to us,” Bassett said in a statement. “But even the best public works projects bring consequences that must be taken seriously and mitigated effectively. So far, negotiations with Sound Transit and WSDOT haven’t yielded results, but we remain hopeful this issue can be resolved favorably and swiftly.”
Rogoff stated that “while Sound Transit remains ready to reach solutions through negotiations, the agency will take all legal actions necessary to avoid delays or increased costs to taxpayers in fulfilling our promise to voters to complete East Link.”
To learn more about the details of this council action, view www.mercergov.org/Rail-FAQ.