Construction of transportation over Mercer Island has a contentious history, and on Feb. 13, Mercer Island City Council voted unanimously to sue Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority and the Washington State Department of Transportation over the scheduled closure of the city’s access ramps at Island Crest Way. Island Crest Way is the main arterial street on Mercer Island, and the only straight, two-lane road running up the middle of the Island. Mercer Island also passed an ordinance halting demolition of the Island Crest Way ramps by refusing to issue necessary permits for six months. Sound Transit hoped to complete the project by June, 2017.
Denying drivers access to I-90 from Island Crest Way would require that substantial traffic from the middle and south portions of Mercer Island enter and exit the highway via narrow and curving side streets and passing through residential neighborhoods with narrow lanes near schools. Alternatively, drivers could contend with the pedestrians and commuter bus traffic by travelling to the single onramp near the main bus station, which invariably equates with delays and congestion. Mercer Island contends that this proposed loss of I-90 access will impact residents, employees and off-island students who will now face gridlock. Residents fear that first responders to medical or fire emergencies will be delayed since Mercer Island does not have emergency medical facilities in the area. According to Mercer Island resident Tom Acker, the loss of access “impacts every island resident, the schools on the north end and every north end business. Nearly 1100 cars per hour will be diverted through the Town Center, 40th and West Mercer Way.”
Additionally, Mercer Island feels the WSDOT plan violates an agreement made approximately 50 years ago that allowed I-90 to be built and promised Mercer Island that its access and traffic concerns would be mitigated.
In 1923, the first bridge connecting Bellevue to Mercer Island was completed, running from Enetai in Bellevue to Barnabie Point on Mercer Island. Visitors from Seattle accessed Mercer Island by ferry, private boat or a long drive through Renton and then over this new bridge. At that time, Bellevue was comprised mainly of endless fields of strawberries and vegetables.
In 1940, the narrow floating bridge connecting Mercer Island to Seattle was completed. Drivers exited on the western shore of Mercer Island, near the bottom of SE 24th Street, and travelled on city streets through downtown Mercer Island and over to the East Channel Bridge. The Bellevue boosters touted the quick trip that now linked a Seattle job with a country home.
The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 paved the way for construction of interstate highways, and plans were laid to have I-90 be a continuous interstate from Boston to Seattle. As plans progressed, the cities of Seattle, Bellevue and Mercer Island objected to ripping up neighborhoods to insert a highway. Lawsuits led to injunctions, and construction ground to a halt. The battle continued for decades. In December, 1976, a Memorandum of Understanding was reached between the cities, the Washington State Highway Commission and others that provided for thick sound walls, a “lid” with a park in Seattle and on Mercer Island, and direct access for single occupancy vehicles to use the high occupancy vehicle lanes between Seattle and Mercer Island. Court injunctions were finally lifted, and I-90 completed in 1993.
In 2008, voters agreed to construct a light rail from Seattle to Bellevue, using the middle of I-90. In 2016, voters approved extending the light rail in all directions, allowing access to Redmond and Issaquah.
To accommodate traffic on I-90, Sound Transit proposed lanes on the bridges be narrowed and the shoulders removed. They also wanted to start preventing SOVs from using HOV lanes. Congestion is likely to increase substantially as anyone visiting Mercer Island is moved to the SOV lanes, further increasing gridlock. Unlike residents in Bellevue or Seattle, who can opt for alternate travel paths when the I-90 becomes a parking lot, those needing to access Mercer Island have no option other than I-90.
Although the Interstate Highway standards require that lanes be 12 feet wide, according to Annie Johnson with WSDOT, in order to allow light rail construction in the center of the I-90 bridges to Mercer Island, WSDOT will put four lanes where there are currently only three, making the 4th lane the new HOV lane. To accomplish this, “We will narrow the lanes about a foot,” said Johnson.
Some commentators have suggested the issue is privilege, not safety. But as Dan Thompson, a Mercer Island resident explained, “In order to deal with taking away the two lanes in the center roadway they’re going to […] reduce each lane from 12 to 10.5 feet and reduce the shoulders to two and six feet on each side. This is too narrow for a car to be able to pull over if there’s a problem and it’s too narrow for an ambulance or fire-truck to get to a big accident. I was a cosponsor in October 2016 for the city-sponsored community meeting on the light rail. I have been advocating for fair access for many months”. Acker said that when the I-90 shoulders are eliminated or reduced, “ambulances, fire trucks and police will not be able to use the shoulders, and there’s nowhere for cars to move to if there’s a significant accident. It is possible, any emergency medical support will have to drive the opposite way into traffic.”
On Feb. 18, the Sound Transit board authorized Sound Transit to sue Mercer Island and WSDOT to challenge the Feb. 13 ordinance, and allow construction on I-90 to continue. Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff said, “It is highly regrettable that the City of Mercer Island is now attempting to delay the project in mid-construction. … These lanes are on schedule to open in June, enabling us to stay on schedule constructing light rail”. The Seattle Times Editorial Board believes that Sound Transit must heed Mercer Island’s transit concerns, calling Sound Transit’s response shocking, and stating, “The city of Mercer Island is right to push back on Sound Transit and the state Department of Transportation with a lawsuit seeking to preserve access and mobility for its residents.”