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Light rail and parking — a train wreck looming
If the pages of the Reporter are any indication, the Island is likely to badly botch the integration of light rail into our transportation fabric. A story from early August highlights the wishful thinking on the part of some Island management. There’s hope that commuters will use shuttle vans to get to and from the North end park-and-ride. The same idea seems to be infiltrating nascent planning to accommodate light rail. In a more recent letter to the editor, Islander Julie Devine points out the obvious — that few people can tolerate the added commuting pain associated with shuttling to the North end.
Compounding the problem is a seemingly baked-in aversion to creating ample, easily accessible parking. Apparently, years ago, the city rejected more ambitious proposals to expand the North end lot, opting instead to only double its size and drive up its cost to $88,000 per new stall. The aversion to realistic planning spreads across the downtown parking landscape. As new buildings have gone up, private lots have increased in number and, in parallel, the “you will be towed signs” have become ubiquitous.
Ms. Devine foresees the same problem that I do if we naively believe Islanders’ car-centric culture will change. A light rail stop and associated, limited parking will be predominantly used by non-residents. Her answer is to have light rail completely pass us by. I disagree. Commuting by rail is efficient, eco-friendly and pleasant. Light rail stations become hubs for commercial activity, increasing property values, tax revenue and retail options. We shouldn’t deprive ourselves of these benefits. We just need to realistically plan over the coming decade on how to take advantage of them. The most logical answer is to build large (tasteful, of course) garage capacity that can serve both light rail and downtown needs and to creatively allocate capacity for locals.
Unfortunately, Mercer Island has a bad track record when it comes to long-term strategic planning for our public facilities. Aside from a sad parking situation, today we see the inauguration of the PEAK multi-purpose facility. At the same time, we hear clamoring to sustain our investments in the resource-strapped Mary Wayte Pool in the aging North Mercer campus. It’s amazing that this collection of interests was not addressed holistically.
We seem to have a bias to look at each construction project — each investment of millions of dollars — in isolation, subjecting it to the tug-and-pull of those with heightened interest in that particular project. Are you for or against PEAK? For or against Mary Wayte? Youth Theatre Northwest? Relocation of the middle school? An expanded park-and-ride?
Without some strategic vision, Mercer Island seems apt to fall prey to project-specific politics, which drive us to cautious, sub-optimal, poorly integrated outcomes. Given this predisposition, Mercer Island is likely to take on a light rail station, but not create enough room for Islanders to make the most use of it. The main thing we have going for us — at least with respect to light rail — is that there may be enough time for our nearsightedness and wishful thinking to fall away, and for a more strategic vision to emerge.