An Open Letter from Vision Mercer Island about the MI-Sound Transit Tentative Settlement
Vision Mercer Island was founded two years ago with a simple mission:
- Educate the region about impending transportation issues
- Advocate for good decision making
- Facilitate win-win solutions as a trusted, data-driven partner
We saw that Mercer Island had a volunteer Council and stretched city staff, and believed that we could bring financial, legal, technical, PR and policy expertise to help avoid the mess other cities had faced.
Maybe it was our content. Maybe it was our message. Maybe it was our messengers. We tried hard but failed, and for that we apologize to our donors, our Mercer Island community and our region.
We apologize because the deal on the table, while ending the dispute, does little to solve the issues the dispute was about. To be absolutely clear, this dispute was never about the merits of Light Rail, stopping the train or taking money from Sound Transit taxpayers.
It was about recognizing that when we close two lanes of an interstate highway across a lake, we get a train but we lose car mobility. Especially for an island dependent on that highway. The region was on the hook to mitigate these impacts. We’ve known about this for over a decade. So this dispute was about:
- Enforcing a longstanding contract between WSDOT and Mercer Island
- Enforcing a longstanding collaborative policy agreement put in place by Mercer Island, Bellevue, Seattle, King County, Sound Transit, the State Legislature, the Governor, WSDOT, and even formally recognized in writing by the Federal Highway Administration
- Following the rules of the State and National Environmental Protection Acts which mandate how Sound Transit and WSDOT implement their plans
- Making smart transportation management decisions for Mercer Island and the region
The solution to this dispute should have been policy decisions that did not cost much money.
Instead, Mercer Island got a $5M payoff to mitigate traffic impacts that its own traffic engineers say are impossible to mitigate, plus another $4M in matching funds for parking in a pipe-dream, public-private land development deal that will never happen.
Sound Transit got the only things it ever cared about: schedule certainty for ST2 and a ballot win for ST3. They stalled, politicked, manipulated analyses, bullied and intimidated, and ultimately threw money at the problem, rather than engage in thoughtful policy decisions about where commuters should park, where buses should connect to trains, and how to encourage ridership for those who live more than a short walk from a station.
WSDOT got total indemnity from having to do anything. They simply never engaged as problem solvers. They walked away from the entire process without ever being held accountable. This same culture caused the Legislature to fire the prior Secretary of Transportation.
The region got what looks and smells like a middle-of- night payoff using taxpayer money.
We aren’t going to opine on whether this is a “good” or “bad” deal. Those are subjective terms. What we will say is the deal does nothing to solve the mobility issues it was supposed to address. It is a deal that lets the politicians claim they did the best they could and stop the fight.
Much has been said about the competence of the Mercer Island City Council. We would make the following observations:
- Two years ago, the City had a staggering amount of leverage: A 2004 contract upheld by the State Supreme Court, a 2005 regional policy agreement codified in 2007 by WSDOT and the Legislature, a fatally flawed 2011 EIS by Sound Transit that was wide open to challenge, the authority to deny a Shoreline Permit based on that EIS, a 2011 Record of Decision from FHWA explicitly recognizing the regional policy agreements, a Representative in Olympia who controlled WSDOT’s purse-strings, a County Executive who was politically worried about a 2015 populist uprising unseating the Mercer Island City Council, the third most powerful Democratic Senator in the country, and a 2016 $54B make-or- break Light Rail ballot Initiative.
- Nearly every time Vision Mercer Island or other citizens advised the Council on the best way to use that leverage to find win-win solutions, the Council chose to trust their own political instincts and their consultant (who used to represent Sound Transit and is currently representing the King County Executive). We also noticed these decisions were based more on the fear of losing or offending than the desire to get the right outcome for constituents.
- Nearly every time Vision Mercer Island spoke with a member of the City or Council, we found that we were educating them about a technicality or nuance they didn’t fully understand. It wasn’t until after the lawsuit was filed that the City formally requested our help. When we challenged the path the City was pursuing, we were told our help was no longer needed.
- It has been reported that the City was spending $250,000 per month on legal fees and that was a big motivator for settling. Even at $1,000 per hour for top lawyers, this is mind-boggling (do the math). They had three different traffic engineering firms doing the same work. We suspect the Council was micro-managing the lawyers and making them sit through hours of political debate, leading to resource management best described as “suboptimal.”
- Finally, much has been blamed on the Federal Highway Administration’s decision to prohibit MI SOVs from using the Island Crest Way onramp or HOV lane. We would note that the City’s letter-writing campaign coupled with its lack of political access or creative thinking boxed FHWA into a technocratic “no” rather than a political “let’s figure this out.” At the same time, the City’s desire to publicly trumpet how hard they were working for residents made it difficult for our Federal delegation to spend political capital on such a local issue.
It was very unlikely that any publicly elected King County judge was going to stop the closure of the center lanes a day, week or month before the scheduled date. Had this case been filed a year earlier, the outcome might have been different.
But the Council chose collaboration over the use of leverage. That’s a noble strategy if reciprocated. When WSDOT refused to come to the table and Sound Transit didn’t deliver political help, the strategy should have changed. That’s not 20/20 hindsight. That’s advice that was ignored multiple times.
Even now, the Council believes that cutting a deal with Sound Transit separately from WSDOT and the I- 90 access issues is wise because our local, regional and federal partners will now step up and help. We’ve had two years of Mercer Island giving up leverage for that help and none of those “partners” has spent any meaningful political capital. We could be wrong, but we don’t see anything changing.
Perhaps forgoing the cash today, coupled with actual data on the traffic impacts experienced, would have given a judge the tools to force WSDOT and Sound Transit to find actual mitigation solutions. We’ll never know.
If one blames others, one must assume blame oneself. We clearly did not educate, advocate and facilitate well enough to get any of the players to change their strategy. Again, we apologize.
Finally, to all those who would say that this is all about some sense of privilege for rich, spoiled Mercer Islanders who’ve had a long run driving in the Express Lanes, we’d say this: of course that’s part of it.
Not the rich, spoiled part. It’s not a class or wealth issue to want to preserve the great things about the neighborhood you call home. Imagine your neighborhood had this deal for decades. The contract said it could be taken away only if you were consulted and received compensation, and the region and state said, “don’t worry, we promise to transfer that privilege to the new lanes.” Then, at the last minute, not only did you lose that privilege without compensation, but the State also told you that 65% of your morning drivers to the city had to clog neighborhood streets and line up for another onramp. Pitchforks would be out in any community.
That is why Vision Mercer Island volunteered our time and money to attempt to prevent this conflict. Although we failed, over the next 30+ years of Light Rail construction, many other neighborhoods and cities will be dealing with their own issues.
We would encourage the citizens and leaders to engage early, spend resources to gather the data, and make sure everyone is educated and unified. Then learn from our mistakes. Force an upfront, honest assessment of the different paths and hold each other accountable when it looks like you’re on the wrong path.
Vision Mercer Island
Vision Mercer Island: Sustainable Transportation Solutions Start Here
Vision Mercer Island is a community organization created to educate Mercer Island residents about the complex transportation issues facing the Island – and will help create a climate for a comprehensive transportation plan that Mercer Island will be proud of for decades to come. Comprised of Mercer Island residents committed to a responsible transportation future, Vision Mercer Island will serve as an educational forum where residents can learn about and share their insights on the challenges of balancing regional infrastructure with the Island’s unique quality of life.
Vision Mercer Island seeks thoughtful solutions to complex transportation challenges that recognize the Island’s unique geography. Our community is a vibrant part of our region. Serving as a critical link between Seattle and the Greater Eastside, it is also heavily dependent on regional transportation infrastructure and disproportionally impacted by development.
Your voice is important. Now is a distinct moment in time when our government’s elected officials and agencies have asked for comprehensive input from Mercer Island residents on what they need to ensure the Island’s quality of life. Our Island has a proud history of working together to deliver extraordinary outcomes on complex transportation challenges facing our community. Now is the time to come together again.
Mercer Island faces a variety of opportunities and challenges, from tolling to parking and from light rail to buses to HOV access and mobility. Regardless of your position on any particular issue, Vision Mercer Island is committed to ensuring the massive transportation changes happening on and around Mercer Island actually improve transportation for Mercer Islanders.
With your voice, Mercer Island can be a critical part of a comprehensive transportation plan that creates a win-win scenario for our Island. Together, let’s make sustainable transportation solutions start here.