An Oct. 16 letter from the city of Mercer Island to Sound Transit officially rejected King County Metro’s requested changes for the Island’s bus intercept plan. This comes after months of review and hundreds of residents raising concerns that the proposed plan presented safety concerns and did not follow a previous agreement.
The letter, from the city manager’s office and signed by Interim City Manager Jessi Bon, states that the city rejects Metro’s demands for bus service on both sides of North Mercer Way and unlimited bus layovers. It says that the city has put lengthy thought and consideration into this decision.
“The city does not accept the demands set forth by the county, although the city remains open to consider other reasonable alternatives to, and additional studies of, the county’s demands,” the letter states.
When East Link light rail opens in 2023, King County Metro (Metro) will no longer run Eastside buses across Interstate 90 like they do today, but will integrate their bus services with light rail to reduce redundancies. Thousands of bus commuters will make a transfer from bus to light rail or vice versa at either the South Bellevue or Mercer Island light rail stations, and the buses will turn around there.
A 2017 Settlement Agreement between the city and Sound Transit (ST) called for a configuration for Metro buses to turn around at a new roundabout on 77th Avenue Southeast. It also outlined that passengers would be dropped off only on the south side of North Mercer Way — the side with the light rail station, so that passengers would not cross the busy street — and limited bus layover times to 15 minutes and occurring only in certain periods of the day.
Metro was not a party to the agreement, but ST and the city knew that eventually they would be involved with the fine tuning and implementation of the design. Additionally, Metro was aware of the details of the agreement.
This week’s city letter says, “It is important to note that the county, though not a signatory party to the agreement, was fully informed of the issues and options explored, which resulted in the county sending the city an October 13, 2017 letter … (that letter) is an express county recognition of the agreement and of its concurrence with the city and Sound Transit’s decision.”
A May 2019 letter from Metro said they would require two changes to meet their service needs: to drop off and pick up passengers on both sides of the street, and to have no limit on the length or time of bus layovers.
Those two refinements, which a ST spokesperson previously stated were the only proposed changes to the Settlement Agreement, are exactly what the city just denied this week.
Many residents have been urging the city to renegotiate and fight these changes since they were proposed.
One distinctive group that has organized more than 200 families together over mutual opposition to Metro’s refinements is the Moms 4 Safe Mercer Island (M4SMI). Group co-founders Ashley Hay and Olivia Lippens have been advocating against the bus intercept, citing concerns of public safety, crime and traffic congestion.
The pair — who are excited about light rail but against the bus intercept — had previously expressed frustration that the city had not been fighting back as strongly as they would hope. They said they think this rejection letter is a good start, but both find the timing a bit odd, being that it is election season.
“It was about time that an official response was issued and made public, but it is still quite concerning that it took seven months for our council to simply state — no, we had a deal, let’s stick to it,” Hay said.
“I hope the irony of this letter being sent on the day ballots dropped is not lost on anyone. I will remain cautiously optimistic that this is the first step in a positive direction for Mercer Island residents, but it remains essential as ever to elect a council who will promptly and tirelessly advocate for Mercer Island, putting residents ahead of regional interests,” she said.
She and Lippens said they feel some candidates for city council, both incumbents and challengers, had not been clear on where they stand on this, perhaps because they are waiting until after the election. But the M4SMI want voters to be aware of candidates’ stances.
“The city has the opportunity to change the outcome. We are pushing council to advocate. Whatever response they give, this is important to us. Right now the issue is not resolved. The election is in six weeks. The new council will have to deal with this,” Hay said.
The M4SMI group recently sent out a questionnaire of specific questions on this topic to all city council candidates. They have received their responses and plan to distribute the results soon.
“Notifying Sound Transit that they aren’t complying with the agreement they signed in 2017 is a small step in the right direction,” Lippens said. “Our base remains skeptical of the majority of this council’s ability to create outcomes beneficial to Islanders in the face of a regional bully. Given the timing of this letter, it could be a day late and a dollar short as we could have a whole new council in a few weeks’ time that is more willing to stand up for homeowners, families and small businesses. After the election is when we will have real clarity on the council’s appetite for this issue.”
Some residents have recently said city council members should be commended for all of their transit discussions and negotiations over the years. They’ve said they feel some community dialogue has been too focused on the negatives.
Judy Clibborn, resident and former Mercer Island mayor who served in the state House of Representatives and was chair of the Transportation Committee for 16 years, said she thinks people should be appreciative of the negotiation efforts of their city council.
She said that it was through the negotiation work of council members, including Debbie Bertlin, at the time that the city secured major positives from the Settlement Agreement — like the $10 million for mitigations and plans for resident only parking — that they would not have gotten from ST otherwise.
She said she understands how all the new changes can be concerning but hopes people will remember all the positives that come with getting a light rail station. She said she thinks property values will go up all over the Island, with access to the train being a hot commodity.
“I’m looking forward to it. I’m going to be watching how people respond to it, how much more energy goes to our town center. I think we’ll have a slight uptick,” she said. “There are places that would kill to have what we’re getting — a station.”
She also said that she thinks the ongoing conversation and hard work, including previous negotiations as well as this week’s letter, is praiseworthy.
“I would see it as a positive. Sound Transit is hearing the city’s concerns and the city is hearing the citizens’ concerns.”
Mercer Island resident Carol Friends echoed this positive outlook on the subject.
“I don’t understand why people want to change leadership. This is up to the whole city council,” she said. “I think they’ve done a good job. It’s good for us to go on in the direction we are going. City council is working well.”
Both transportation agencies have received the letter, but neither has an immediate response to share at this point.
ST public information officer Rachelle Cunningham said, “At this point we are still reviewing the letter. Sound Transit will continue to work with the city and King County Metro with the goal of reaching a mutually acceptable agreement.”
“We’ve received the letter from our partners at Sound Transit,” said Jeff Switzer, spokesperson for King County Metro.
When the Reporter reached out to the city for further comment, they said they would let this week’s letter speak for itself.
“The County’s demands constitute a material change to the agreement’s terms, conditions and intentions as agreed to by the city and Sound Transit. As a consequence, the city reasonably withholds its approval of the county’s demands set forth in the May 10, 2019 letter. The city, in the spirit of good faith and collaboration, is willing to consider other reasonable alternatives to, and additional studies of, the county’s demands. The city looks forward to a constructive dialogue with Sound Transit and the county on these issues in the hope that a reasonable position can be agreed upon,” the letter states.
Although ridership numbers are uncertain and many decisions have yet to be made between the city and both transportation agencies, recent study based ST projections estimate about 4,200 total daily on-boardings at the Mercer Island light rail station each day, including bus transfers, commuters who’ve driven to the park and ride, and Island residents. If bus pick ups and drop offs were to occur on the north side of North Mercer Way, this could mean up to about 1,000 people would cross the street in a single hour during the busiest commuting periods.