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.

We failed.

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:

  1. Enforcing a longstanding contract between WSDOT and Mercer Island
  2. 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
  3. Following the rules of the State and National Environmental Protection Acts which mandate how Sound Transit and WSDOT implement their plans
  4. 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.

Respectfully,

Vision Mercer Island

Remarks by Lori Otto Punke, Executive Director, Vision Mercer Island. Delivered at Sound Transit Listening Session

NEWS RELEASE

September 24, 2015

Remarks by Lori Otto Punke, Executive Director, Vision Mercer Island. Delivered at Sound Transit Listening Session, September 24, 2015, Mercer Island, Washington.  

My name is Lori Otto Punke and I am the Executive Director of Vision Mercer Island.  Our mission is to educate people on the complex transportation issues facing Mercer Island and the region.  We’ve dug deeply into the issues, talked to experts, residents and businesses.  We’ve conducted a comprehensive survey of Islanders.  Here are three observations:

1)     Islanders aren’t special, but Mercer Island is a unique geography in a unique situation

Nowhere else in the US exists such a large, populated Island wedged between a major metro core and its close suburbs, connected only by a primary interstate.    This obviously presents unique transportation challenges, and Mercer Island has longstanding contractual rights because of this.  

Our survey is still open so we don’t have final data yet, but I can tell you that the response has been incredible and the overwhelming majority do care about the issues and want the Council to negotiate fiercely.  But Islanders also have a long history of working collaboratively for regional transportation, and will do it again now.

2)     All of the issues being discussed have win-win solutions.  Being obstructionist will not help our transportation realities, and neither will the governmental institutions’ reflexive reaction to say, “we can’t do that.”  Encouraging transit ridership, preventing gridlock and mitigating disruption are goals shared by Mercer Island, transportation agencies and the region.  

So whether were talking about parking, HOV lanes, tolls, bus intercepts, direct access ramps, shuttle service, cut-through traffic, construction closures, or any other part of this integrated picture, let’s all recognize that what’s good for Mercer Island can also be good for regional transportation.

3)     This must be a public process, but it can be a constructive one.

If Sound Transit wrote Mercer Island a big fat check right now, we’d have beautiful parks but we’d be stuck in gridlock.  We have to negotiate a comprehensive solution with the appropriate public input.  

But, nobody wants a repeat of the multi-year, adversarial process other cities went through.   So, to the officials here today, thank you for listening and please, please incorporate what Islanders are saying.  And to Islanders participating today, thank you for speaking up, and please continue to be constructive to the process.

In the 1970s, people were skeptical that a deal on I-90 could be reached.  If everyone is educated about the transportation realities we face today, we have another once-in-a-generation opportunity for Mercer Island to be a leader in finding win-win transportation solutions.

Thank you.

 

About Vision Mercer Island

Vision Mercer Island is a community organization created to educate Mercer Island residents about the complex transportation issues facing our Island. Our aim is to help create a climate for a comprehensive transportation plan that Mercer Island will be proud of for decades to come. For more information, visit www.visionmercerisland.org.

###

MEDIA CONTACT

Lori Otto Punke
visionmercerisland@gmail.com
(253)470-6543

###

Mercer Island Community Gets New Voice on Transportation Issues

NEWS RELEASE

September 1, 2015

Mercer Island Community Gets New Voice on Transportation Issues

Nonprofit Vision Mercer Island to conduct online survey to identify real resident concerns on impact of infrastructure changes to community

Mercer Island, Wash.– Concerned that a multitude of transportation projects, under the jurisdictions of different agencies, will leave its community idling on the shoulder, a group of Mercer Island residents has formed a new nonprofit to educate citizens and officials and encourage an open dialogue on complex infrastructure issues.   They will launch an online survey to gather real community feedback on pressing transportation needs.

“We need a transportation plan that benefits Mercer Island as well as the region,” said Lori Otto Punke, executive director of Vision Mercer Island. “Traffic is bad and about to get worse, so we formed Vision Mercer Island to give Island residents a forum to share real concerns about how changes to regional transportation systems will impact our community.”

Because of its unique geography, Mercer Island sits in the center of many imminent transportation changes, including construction closures and route modifications on I-90, rerouting buses and Park & Ride traffic, and Sound Transit’s East Link light rail expansion project and the road-level Mercer Island Station. While the goal of these projects is to improve transit availability, the resulting traffic impacts will make it significantly harder for drivers to get on, off and around Mercer Island. This affects not only those who live and work on Mercer Island, but also those who commute and move freight across the critical I-90 corridor.

Vision Mercer Island is forming at a time when input from Mercer Island residents is not only needed, but requested by government officials and agencies. Sound Transit approved a motion to seek more input from Island residents before moving ahead with existing plans for light rail, with King County Executive Dow Constantine and State Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson, both Sound Transit board members, encouraging King County Metro and the Washington State Department of Transportation, respectively, to participate in the process. The agencies plan to host a series of public meetings and drop-in sessions over the next two months to listen to residents’ concerns.

To encourage real community feedback, Vision Mercer Island will conduct an online anonymous survey of Island residents to gather input on pressing transportation issues. By better understanding community needs and expectations, the Island will be better able to engage in responsible dialogue and create a climate for a transportation plan that supports a strong and vibrant future.

“We like to say that sustainable transportation solutions start here on Mercer Island — and this is a distinct moment in time to highlight the challenges, opportunities, and impacts transportation has on our community,” continued Punke. “Mercer Island has a proud history of creating extraordinary transportation outcomes that benefit our community and greater region alike, and we need to work together to keep that legacy alive now.”

About Vision Mercer Island

Vision Mercer Island is a community organization created to educate Mercer Island residents about the complex transportation issues facing our Island. Our aim is to help create a climate for a comprehensive transportation plan that Mercer Island will be proud of for decades to come. For more information, visit www.visionmercerisland.org.

###

MEDIA CONTACT

Lori Otto Punke
visionmercerisland@gmail.com
(253)470-6543