The city released a graphic summarizing its historic agreements regarding Interstate 90. Image courtesy of the city of Mercer Island.

The city released a graphic summarizing its historic agreements regarding Interstate 90. Image courtesy of the city of Mercer Island.

Federal legal question could disrupt I-90 access in Mercer Island

A determination by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) that "allowing Mercer Island SOV access to the new outer roadway HOV lanes would violate federal law" could cause a setback in the city's efforts to maintain Interstate 90 access for its residents.

  • Thursday, August 18, 2016 2:38pm
  • News

A determination by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) that “allowing Mercer Island SOV access to the new outer roadway HOV lanes would violate federal law” could cause a setback in the city’s efforts to maintain Interstate 90 access for its residents.

Since the development of community priorities for I-90 access and other mobility issues following last fall’s Sound Transit listening tour, the City Council and staff have been working to follow through on those goals.

The I-90 center roadway will close to cars in mid-2017, affecting the way many people, both Islanders and non-residents, get on and off the Island.

Combined with recent bus cuts, a park and ride at full capacity daily and a six-year construction period, anxiety is high and the pressure is on the council to guide the Island through a large transition without “adverse impacts” to the community.

Access to the new outer lanes on I-90 created by the R8A configuration, meant to replace the center lanes that will be converted for Sound Transit’s East Link light rail to use, is the biggest point of concern and challenge, said Mayor Bruce Bassett, and the FHWA raised legal concerns about it.

There are other mobility problems, including lack of commuter parking and ways to access transit, and Islanders want solutions. It is reminiscent of the 1960s and 70s, when Mercer Island Mayor Aubrey Davis campaigned for a redesign of the I-90 expansion project that resulted in a large lid park on the Island, instead of an elevated, 14-lane configuration, and Island traffic access to the transit lanes.

Anyone traveling to and from the Island can use the center HOV lanes as a single occupant, according to a 1976 memorandum, as long as priority is given to transit and carpools and the speed stays above 45 miles per hour.

The council took the priorities identified last fall — namely, retaining some form of that Island access — as its marching orders, Bassett said. Bassett recently returned from a trip to Washington D.C. to make sure the FHWA and other federal agencies, as well as Washington state’s congressional delegation, understand the city’s views, and the historical agreements that support them.

But FHWA does not view the situation in the same manner. FHWA Division Administrator Daniel Mathis sent a letter to Roger Millar, acting secretary for the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) and the city of Mercer Island regarding “Interstate 90 High Occupancy Vehicle Operation on Mercer Island” on Aug. 5.

Steve Lancaster, former interim city manager, had written to the agency on May 16 and May 31, noting that the city “would like a commitment that all traffic to and from Mercer Island, including SOVs, can continue to access the new HOV lanes.”

FWHA concluded that the U.S. Department of Transportation does not have authority to grant a temporary or permanent waiver for that access.

That’s not exactly what the city wanted to hear, though Bassett said the letter opens the door for continued negotiations with FHWA and WSDOT, which appeared to be waiting on the official federal response before getting involved.

Still, FHWA is “eager to find a solution that works for all users of the I-90 roadway and upcoming East Link Light Rail line,” and gave some options for alternatives, including designating the new outer roadway lanes for part-time HOV usage, such as during peak periods, designating the new lanes as HOT lanes, allowing Mercer Island use for the prevailing price, or pursuing other project mitigations.

“The city of Mercer Island believes a favorable solution to this issue is critical to maintaining mobility of travel to and from the Island following the permanent closure of the I-90 center roadway express lanes for construction and operation of the East Link light rail transit project,” according to a statement the city released Aug. 9. “While the city disagrees with the FHWA letter and will respond accordingly, it shares FHWA’s desire to find a solution.”

Bassett said that the letter is “one step in a long process.” Mercer Island’s position is that the FHWA response contradicts the city’s long-standing regional agreements, which date back to the 1976 memo.

Changes in terminology and technology over time, as well as the ambiguity in the language in the original documents, are some of the challenges in the negotiations, but the city hopes to be as transparent and communicative as possible throughout this period, said Kirsten Taylor, assistant city manager.

Read the city’s FAQ here.

“While the benefits offered by light rail to the entire region are significant, Mercer Island residents will also experience changes to the community, both temporary (during construction) and permanent,” according to the city’s MI Weekly newsletter.

The city has also been engaged with representatives at the local, regional and state level to respect historic agreements, including Sen. Maria Cantwell, Rep. Adam Smith and Sen. Patty Murray’s transportation advisor.

The city hired consultant Tony Williams of Washington2Advocates in September 2015 to help with the negotiations and triangulate the positions of the city, Sound Transit and WSDOT.

Through the hiring of two interim city managers and the ongoing process to find a permanent person in that position, the I-90 negotiations have continued, Taylor said.

“The work has not stopped through those transitions, because this is such a priority for the community,” Taylor said.

In a letter to supporters, the community group Vision Mercer Island, which formed to educate Islanders about transportation issues, said it was hopeful that new interim city manager Pam Bissonnette would provide the “thought leadership needed and use all available resources to regain control of the negotiations.”

In the letter, Vision Mercer Island criticized the city for “rubber stamping” Sound Transit’s East Link shoreline permit, which it believes was the “largest leverage the city had” in the negotiations, “without having a broader, negotiated deal in place” and choosing “expediency over expertise.” The city approved the Shoreline Substantial Development Permit on July 5.

“The proposed work includes seismic retrofits to the I-90 bridges entering the city; installation of light rail tracks on the I-90 deck, including associated overhead wires, special track bridge sections, utilities and safety barriers; and additional anode cables added to the floating bridge pontoons,” according to the permit application, submitted on Oct. 29, 2015.

The question of whether Mercer Island SOVs are able to use the 1-90 HOV lanes is a “separate issue under the authority of FHWA and WSDOT,” and is “not relevant to the city’s review of the shoreline application that has been pending since last October,” according to a Sound Transit letter responding to Vision Mercer Island’s concerns.

The council has discussed the possibility of adding communications resources to keep the community informed as updates on the negotiations become available.

Mercer Island’s goals, as discussed at the July 19 city council meeting:

• Determine access to the new lanes to be added to the outer roadways, in the context of historic agreements, before the center roadway closes to cars.

• Changes to I-90 access should not significantly impact mobility in and around Town Center.

• Improve availability of convenient commuter parking, enabling Island residents to access bus transit services and in the future, light rail.

• Increase on-Island transit options through existing and future innovative services, facilitating better “last mile” connections to light rail.

• Regional commuter bus operations on Mercer Island should not generate additional adverse impacts.

• Implement safe and convenient pedestrian and bicycle access to the future light rail station, and enhance interconnections with existing trails and paths.

For more, see

Update: Council member Dan Grausz sent an email update to Islanders, with the subject line “bad news on I-90” on Aug. 14, detailing the history of Mercer Island access to the transit lanes and the discrepancies between historical agreements and the FHWA’s recent letter.

Grausz wrote that the access issue came up in the course of negotiations with Sound Transit and the state as to the required mitigation under the 2004 amendment to the 1976 agreement, when issues such as priority parking, intra-Island transit and other measures that would enable Islanders to both utilize light rail and also address traffic congestion impacts on the Island were being discussed.

Mercer Island access and SOV traffic in the HOV lanes was approved in a June 22, 2011 letter to the state, Grausz wrote, sent by the same person at FHWA who wrote the Aug. 5 letter. The recent FHWA determination could affect not only to SOV commuters but also “the impact on our local streets and on the Island Crest Way access point to westbound I-90,” he wrote, and be “a huge problem for Mercer Island traffic.”

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