As news of the proposed bus intercept plan that would transfer thousands of Eastside commuters from bus to light rail on Mercer Island spreads, resistance has grown.
Hundreds of residents have spoken out against the plan between the city of Mercer Island, Sound Transit (ST) and King County Metro (Metro). They cite concerns of crime, traffic congestion, infrastructure and public safety. They also are expressing frustrations with differences in the latest version of the plan to integrate bus with rail from what was previously agreed upon in a 2017 settlement agreement between the city and ST.
That agreement specifically outlined that Metro buses would only drop off, pick up and layover on the south side of the street to avoid having passengers cross the street. It also included a 77th Avenue Southeast roundabout designated for bus turnaround.
The plan will seriously impact adjacent private homes, including two properties to be acquired by ST on 78th Avenue Southeast and on North Mercer Way.
The bus intercept plan is part of an ongoing bus-rail integration effort to eliminate redundant service across the I-90 bridge once the East Link Light Rail station on Mercer Island begins running in 2023. Metro will no longer run Eastside buses across I-90 to Seattle as they do now, and passengers will have to transfer at either the South Bellevue or Mercer Island light rail station.
Metro, which was not a party to the agreement, has presented some refinements that they deem necessary to perform their service needs. It was known by both the city and ST at the time that Metro would be involved in later implementing the agreed configuration.
Now they are calling for bus pick-ups and drop-offs on both sides of the street, which would have thousands of people cross, and to remove the agreement’s limit on the length of bus layover times.
Parents, business owners, homeowners and many citizens have approached the city council in opposition to the plan.
Moms 4 Safe Mercer Island
One notable group, the Moms 4 Safe Mercer Island (M4SMI), has banded more than 215 families together in the last three months over shared concerns of public safety and the perceived potential increase in crime, given the increase of people. Traffic congestion and infrastructure are other concerns they’ve echoed. They worry about so many people crossing the street and that the light rail station will not have a restroom.
The group is co-founded by moms Ashley Hay and Olivia Lippens.
About six months ago, when ST and Metro presented the latest options for the Mercer Island light rail station and bus integration, it wasn’t what Hay said she was expecting.
“They asked for much more than what the agreement provided for,” she said.
Hay has three children and is active in PTAs. She has been following the issue for some time, paying attention to updates and reading the documents on the city’s Let’s Talk website.
“What we thought we were getting and what we agreed to in the 2017 settlement is not what’s happening,” she said.
The pair thinks not enough people are aware of the plan, nor are they aware of the impacts they are worried the project could have on the island. Hay said many of the people she talks to about it are surprised by the scope of the project, or are entirely unaware of it.
Hay and Lippens said of the people they have talked with, there has been no support for the transfer station.
“This is troubling. This is insane,” Lippens said. “I see this as a significant risk from a public safety perspective, a tax perspective, and a lifestyle perspective. I am hugely concerned.”
They have been urging the city council to renegotiate with Metro and ST. Hay and Lippens both said they are fully supportive of light rail and excited to have a light rail station on the island, but they do not want a bus intercept or transfer station.
“The council is elected to support Mercer Islanders, not regional interest,” Lippens said. “Negotiating this is well within their scope. This is not what their constituents want.”
They are worried Islanders won’t be able to use the light rail due to a lack of parking spots and space on the train, which will already have several pick-up stops before hitting the island on its way to Seattle. Mercer Island’s park and ride is often at capacity during weekday commute times, and they worry that adding all the bus commuters will further reduce the space available on the train for Mercer Island residents.
“This will not benefit Mercer Islanders in any way,” Hay said. “It’s busy and dangerous for everyone.”
They also pointed to recent instances of violent crimes at other ST stations. In September three people were shot, one of whom died, at Westlake Station in Seattle (https://bit.ly/30QVRlv). The next day, a man was stabbed at the University of Washington light rail station (https://bit.ly/2ANidcZ).
While ST promised to increase security, Hay questioned whether Mercer Island’s station would have adequate security, and security paid for at least in part from the transit authority.
“If the Mercer Island officers are having to respond to issues because of that increase in people, I think Metro and Sound Transit should have to bear some of that cost,” she said.
Responses from Sound Transit and Metro
Rachelle Cunningham, public information officer for ST, said having a transfer station on Mercer Island makes sense. It is a convenient location, right on Interstate 90, and one of the few cities on the Eastside with a light rail station.
She also said that ST’s official projections show 4,200 on-boardings at the station each day once the light rail station opens in 2023, 1,300 of which occur in the morning peak commute hour.
ST’s answers to questions on Let’s Talk state that 1,300 pedestrians would cross North Mercer Way between the bus stop and the rail station in the peak hour. About 250 of that 1,300 will come from the park and ride, and the remaining 1,050 will come from bus transfers.
“We have studied extensively to determine how many people would be using this service. This is based on science and data,” she said.
And she doesn’t know where some of the larger numbers being tossed around have come from (for some time, many Islanders have said there could be up to 14,000 bus commuters transferring there each day).
Additionally, she clarified that some transfers will take place in Bellevue. They will not all take place on Mercer Island.
“We’re not funneling everyone onto Mercer Island. That is certainly not the case,” she said.
Cunningham also said she does not see any major differences between the current proposal and the 2017 settlement agreement. She is only aware of the two refinements requested by Metro for their bus operations.
“Those are the only two refinements I am aware of,” she said. “The design that is being created now is consistent with the settlement.”
She said various mitigations have been proposed to make the crossing safer and manageable. The project is still in design, she said, and ST will continue working with the city. Cunningham said they hadn’t heard from the city since they last presented alternative proposals in August.
Jeff Switzer, Metro spokesperson, clarified via email that there will be no facility built for the buses, no “bus depot.” He said the plans for the island include four layover parking spaces along North Mercer Way that will be used for short-term parking as drivers finish one trip and begin their next.
“As light rail expands, people will expect it to connect to great bus service, and we’re committed to providing that through fast and reliable connections. Layover is a critical component to providing this service. South Bellevue Station will be also be a transfer point for bus and rail service. That station will have approximately six layover spaces, in addition to bus bays for people to board and exit buses, as well as a parking garage,” he said.
Small business owner’s concerns
Victor Raisys is a Mercer Island resident and co-owner of Island Books. He talked about his perspective as a small business owner and how he and his business will be affected.
He said he sees more negatives than positives, and worries about crime, safety, parking, costs and how these would affect his business.
“As an Island resident and a business owner, I see no upside and only downside,” Raisys said.
Island Books, which has been in business for 45 years, was the victim of an armed robbery in July 2017 (https://bit.ly/2nGFkTw).
He worries that an increase of people could lead to an increase in violent crimes on the Island and a higher need for security. He feels he will need to increase his staff, especially at night.
“As the owner of a small business that has the dubious distinction of being the victim of a recent violent crime — an armed robbery — I’m concerned about the increased crime and the impact on my business and the increased costs on my business,” Raisys said. “I’ve seen no mitigation, nor have I heard any discussion for mitigation, for small businesses. All the discussion has been around safety, police, etc., but I’m having to eat my own costs.”
“The city is getting mitigation for its costs, but I’m not getting mitigation for my costs,” he said.
The city’s response
A city statement for the Reporter this week said the city will continue to address key areas of concern throughout the design process of the plan.
The city will focus on pedestrian and bicyclist safety, safe and efficient traffic flow, individual safety concerns, timely fire and police responses to emergencies in the station area, and minimizing the potential impacts on parks, nearby neighborhoods from increased foot traffic and the town center.
“The city is looking at all viable options and solutions that will best serve the Mercer Island community. While we are still approximately four years away from the scheduled opening of the Mercer Island Station, key city departments including police, fire, public works and the city manager’s office are working closely with partner agencies to identify public safety and traffic concerns, and ensure that the final bus-rail intercept design addresses these issues.” said Jessi Bon, interim city manager.
Ross Freeman, city spokesperson, also clarified the refinements to the settlement agreement.
He said that under the settlement agreement, buses may only layover between 3:30 p.m. and 7 p.m., and the duration of the layovers are limited to no more than 15 minutes. Furthermore, under the settlement agreement, pick-up, drop-off and layover are limited to the south side of North Mercer Way.
Freeman also said there is no reference to a “bus depot” and that no buildings or structures have been proposed.
The letter in which Sound Transit and Metro requested the changes is available on Let’s Talk.
When asked whether the city would further negotiate with ST and Metro, Freeman said city staff and the city council are working to identify mutually-agreeable solutions that mitigate the concerns held by some citizens and provide certainty for Metro and ST’s future bus-rail operations.
“Extensive and complex conversations have been underway since Sound Transit and Metro requested the changes to the agreed upon 77th Avenue SE Configuration,” Freeman said in an email.
In July 2014, ST presented a report showing four options for a bus turnaround on Mercer Island.
Islanders were wary of the “bus intercept” concept, not wanting diesel idling and regional bus circulation downtown. They also wanted to limit bus volumes to no greater than existing volumes. The city council formally rejected the proposal in May 2015.
In 2017, after months of negotiations and litigation on bus-rail integration and many other topics, ST and Mercer Island reached a settlement agreement that was “intended to offset the impacts of light rail construction and operation, and also to partially compensate for permanent impacts to local traffic patterns,” according to the city.
One of the main objectives of the settlement was to ensure that ST did not construct its preferred alternative configuration for the bus turnaround on 80th Avenue Southeast. The council preferred a location at 77th Avenue Southeast, to integrate better with the park and ride. The agreement also included funding from ST to help alleviate the city’s commuter parking problem.
In May 2019, Metro’s concurrence letter spelled out the agency’s refinements.
At a July 2019 council meeting a working group was unanimously approved to explore options after residents’ concerns were brought before the council. The council authorized as much as $50,000 to reassess the bus intercept.
Led by Deputy Mayor Salim Nice and Councilmember Benson Wong, the group was tasked with reviewing the proposed 77th Avenue configuration and potential improvements that could address community impacts.
They hired a traffic consultant who reviewed existing data and provided a summary report with ways to optimize the proposals and mitigate impacts. The results can be read on Let’s Talk.
The group presented its findings at the Aug. 20 council meeting, including alternative configurations and additional roundabouts that could cost some $5 million, which the city would have to pay for if chosen.
One of the proposed alternatives was already shot down by Metro for not fitting their operational needs.
In 2021, Metro will lead a public engagement and planning process to gather input and feedback on transit services and routing for when the station opens in 2023.
What are the benefits for Islanders?
Lippens, Hay, and Raisys all agree that the potential negative impacts of the bus intercept for residents are clear, but that there are no clear benefits for Mercer Island residents.
Hay said that everywhere she’s read she’s only seen lists of ways this benefits the region as a whole, but not Islanders specifically.
The city stated that when East Link opens for service in 2023, Mercer Island residents will have access to downtown Bellevue or Seattle in just 10 minutes. Trains will be scheduled to arrive at 8-minute intervals during peak hours. They also said that to help regional commuters transfer between bus and light rail, 16 to 20 westbound buses (per peak hour) originating from the Eastside will terminate at the Mercer Island Station. Other routes will terminate at the South Bellevue Station, the city said.
A game of numbers
Right now no numbers are set. There are only estimates.
Jeff Switzer, Metro spokesperson, said the best number that he would refer to is the most recent projection from ST of 4,200 on-boardings at the Mercer Island Station per day in 2023.
The city deferred to that number as well.
“Because rail operations don’t even launch for another four years and Metro has yet to determine the exact bus routes, ridership projections are difficult to predict precisely,” Freeman said in an email.
Freeman also said it can be assumed that the 4,200 will return home via rail in the evening, and could therefore be counted twice to get a total of 8,400 commuters passing through each weekday.
Hay also said this number should be doubled to account for the return trip at least. However, she has done her own math based on the proposed number of buses per peak hours to come up with a number of commuters somewhere in the 10,000 to 14,000 range.
Many citizens have done their own math, based on the number of buses forecasted in some scenarios, and they have determined a 14,000 number that they feel is reasonable.
Both transportation agencies and the city said Mercer Island will likely see thousands more people on the Island during their commutes, though precise numbers haven’t been nailed down.
Additionally there seems to be some changes to projections as information on this issue has evolved over time.
The 2017 Addendum states that about 1,300 pedestrians would cross North Mercer Way between the bus stops located on the north side of North Mercer Way and the light rail station during the peak morning hour.
The same document also says, “By 2035, daily light rail boardings at the Mercer Island Station are estimated to increase to 6,000 with the 77th or 80th Avenue SE Configuration compared to 3,000 with the FEIS Configuration. The increase in boardings is due to transit riders transferring between buses and light rail.”
A 2014 Sound Transit study showed some scenarios could have a total daily ridership of 13,900.
Some residents said that the ST projection of 4,200 daily light rail onboardings at the Mercer Island Station does not match a basic calculation that takes into account the number of buses per hour proposed to make the transfer and the number of people per bus.
However, Cunningham said ST estimates are based on extensive studies which have predicted ridership numbers in other parts of the region.