I-90 debate escalates in region, state as Sound Transit board votes to countersue Mercer Island

News of Mercer Island’s legal action regarding access to Interstate 90 has reached local media outlets, the Sound Transit Board of Directors and Olympia.

On Feb. 17, the Sound Transit board voted to countersue the city, citing concerns with East Link light rail’s timeline and budget due to the lawsuit, and suspensions and moratoria for crucial permits.

East Link construction is scheduled to begin in June, when the I-90 center roadway will be permanently closed.

City officials maintain that their intent is not to delay light rail, but to ensure that plans for I-90 access and loss of mobility mitigation are in place before construction begins.

On Feb. 13, the city filed a lawsuit against the state and Sound Transit seeking to delay the closure of the I-90 center roadway “until they satisfy their obligations to mitigate the loss of mobility that will result from the closure as well as comply with applicable environmental laws,” according to an email update from Councilmember Dan Grausz.

“We truly want this project to succeed, be on time and be on budget,” Grausz wrote. “Success, however, cannot be at the expense of Islanders relinquishing their legal rights, having their safety compromised and their lives made miserable.”

On Feb. 16, the city notified Sound Transit that it was suspending the Shoreline Substantial Development Permit that had been issued for East Link in July 2016, an action that many Island residents and community groups had called for, including Vision Mercer Island.

The lawsuit is a council action that is separate from the administrative decision to suspend the permit, City Manager Julie Underwood said at the Feb. 21 council meeting.

Along with the lawsuit, the council established two moratoria, one for public institution Feb. zoning and one for transportation concurrency and permitting for an “essential public facility” (such as light rail). The moratoria can last up to six months, and can be extended, while the Mercer Island Planning Commission works to update city codes that are pertinent to light rail.

The moratoria “temporarily prevent work on Mercer Island related to the construction of East Link in the I-90 Center Roadway so that the city may amend its zoning ordinance to allow for and regulate non-highway uses of it,” according to the city’s letter to Sound Transit.

The lawsuit also asserts violations of the State Environmental Policy Act. East Link’s environmental review did not take into account the consequences of the Federal Highway Administration’s determination that Mercer Island solo drivers could no longer use HOV lanes, a right negotiated in agreements between the parties dating back to 1976, and therefore could not access the westbound Island Crest Way ramp, as it will connect to the new HOV lanes once the center roadway closes.

The shoreline permit was suspended for the same reason, as “the conditions under which the original permit was issued are no longer valid,” Grausz wrote.

Deputy Mayor Debbie Bertlin addressed the Sound Transit Board at its Feb. 17 meeting, noting that the closure of that ramp to single occupant vehicles will require additional mitigation to address the “safety, economic impacts and significant congestion” that will result from traffic diversions to Town Center streets and school zones.

Still, the Sound Transit Board voted to sue, arguing that the suspension of the shoreline permit will increase construction costs and delay the start and completion of the East Link project, as it prohibits all light rail construction on I-90 within 200 feet of the Mercer Island shoreline and extending to the midway points of the Homer Hadley and East Channel bridges between Seattle and Bellevue.

The Sound Transit board’s motion sought to “confirm Sound Transit’s and the Washington State Department of Transportation’s authority to take all lawful actions to construct and operate light rail on Interstate 90 or on Mercer Island between Seattle and Bellevue as approved by voters.”

Grausz said he is still hoping for a quick settlement that will address vehicle access, parking and intra-Island transit.

The city is getting some assistance from regional officials, including King County Councilmember Claudia Balducci, who sits on the Sound Transit Board. She cast the only “no” vote on suing Mercer Island, and said she had hoped for a de-escalating action. As the state is named as a potential co-defendant in the counter-suit, WSDOT Secretary and Sound Transit Board Member Roger Millar abstained from the vote.

“I do feel that there could still be a path to a negotiated agreement that would meet the spirit and requirements of the previously-negotiated agreements… given the change in circumstances that was unanticipated when FHWA told us we could no longer maintain [the] use of the SOV lanes, and I wish we would do that,” Balducci said.

Balducci said that she sees the dispute as less about ongoing, indefinite SOV access to the I-90 HOV lanes or more about how people traveling to and from Mercer Island access the freeway. The fact that FHWA’s decision came so late in the project didn’t help, she said.

Sound Transit Board President and Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers said he felt that the legal action was necessary to preserve East Link’s budget and schedule.

On the state level, Islander and state Rep. Judy Clibborn proposed House Bill 2129 to ensure continued SOV access through the Island Crest Way entry.

“In addition and very much attributable to Rep. Clibborn’s efforts and the support of Rep. Tana Senn and Sen. Lisa Wellman, we understand that Governor [Jay] Inslee and his staff are fully engaged in finding solutions to the I-90 access issues,” Grausz wrote.

Mercer Island representatives met with Inslee on Feb. 13. Clibborn, Senn and Wellman sent a letter to Millar on Feb. 10, noting that working together will “create the best solution for everyone.”

For more, see www.mercergov.org/Rail. For the Feb. 21 agenda bill and related documents, including the letter from the 41 district representatives, click here.