Understanding the New HOV Lanes

In 1976 Mercer Island, the only populated Island in the US that is wedged between a major city and the suburbs with a single highway for access, cut a brilliant deal.

The state wanted to widen I-90 and build a new bridge. So MI negotiated the 1976 Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) allowing all single-occupant-vehicle (SOV) traffic to and from MI to use the new Express Lanes. It also contemplated future access between MI and I-405 and mandated that any big changes to I-90 required Mercer Island’s negotiated agreement.

Fast forward to today.  The Express Lanes close in a few months for Light Rail construction and restriped HOV lanes will be added to the outer roadway. Negotiations are in full swing on several issues, including whether Mercer Island SOVs will continue to be eligible to use these new HOV lanes.

It should be simple. In 2007, the State Legislature mandated this eligibility (until the lanes become HOT lanes) and WSDOT formally promised to implement. In 2011, every traffic scenario of Sound Transit’s Environmental Impact Statement assumed this eligibility. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) not only approved this, but used MI SOV eligibility as an argument why Light Rail construction wouldn’t have a negative impact on traffic flow.

In fact, once Light Rail opens across I-90, buses will stop crossing the bridge and the HOV lanes will be underutilized without Mercer Island traffic.

But in January 2016, after months of rumors, FHWA said that under a 2005 Federal law, SOVs cannot drive in HOV lanes or on HOV ramps. No exceptions.

So the negotiations ground to a halt and everyone started blaming FHWA for the lack of progress.

The good news is that there are a lot of options. FHWA does make exceptions. Putting Mercer Island traffic in the lanes exempts the lanes from the HOV law. Nobody wants a 2-5 year delay to redo all of the Environmental Impact Statement work. There are answers here. Mercer Island, Sound Transit and WSDOT all want this done.

The bad news is the City hasn’t done a great job strategically:

  • In 2007, they failed to identify the potential legal problem
  • In 2011, they didn’t challenge the Environmental Impact Statement for more specificity
  • In mid-2015, when rumors of this legal issue were emerging, they didn’t alert our Federal delegation, who were in the process of negotiating a Highway Bill that amended the specific section in question and could have fixed the problem
  • In 2016, the Council started a formal exchange of letters with FHWA (rather than a behind-the-scenes dialogue), causing FHWA lawyers to dig in further.
  • The Mayor went to DC to make the case with a senior FHWA official, but without a comprehensive deal in place and unanimity among the parties, there was no political pressure, so the lawyers again said “no.”
  • Then the City hoped the new Sound Transit CEO could persuade his former DC colleagues to fix the problem, issuing Sound Transit’s shoreline permit without a deal in place to maintain positive relations. Unfortunately, he was unsuccessful.
  • Now the City is “studying alternatives” on this issue separately from the other negotiating topics, further decreasing leverage.

So now what?

Our research indicates that the win/win position is:

  1. Eligibility for Mercer Island SOVs to the new HOV lanes, between I-405 and Seattle including all ramps, until the lanes become HOT lanes
  1. WSDOT has the ability to do this by simply calling them “Managed Lanes” instead of HOV lanes and nobody has to redo any Environmental Impact Statements
  1. Mercer Island, Sound Transit and WSDOT complete their big negotiation, including this provision, and hand the deal to FHWA as a complete package. With a signed agreement, unified support and Light Rail’s schedule at stake, our Federal delegation can make sure FHWA doesn’t throw a wrench in things

If this doesn’t happen by the end of the year, it’s possible Mercer Island will be in a lawsuit with Sound Transit and WSDOT instead of working together with them. Then all bets are off and Mercer Island could very likely lose the HOV access negotiated for in 1976.

What You Can Do

Let the City Council know you care.  Here is a sample email:

Dear Council Members,

 I am concerned that the current transportation negotiation strategy, especially as it pertains to SOV access to I-90, is not on the right track. Please stop blaming others and negotiate fiercely with Sound Transit and WSDOT to ensure SOV eligibility between I-405 and Seattle, including all ramps, until the lanes become HOT lanes. Do this as an integrated, win/win negotiation and present our Federal delegation with a unified, signed deal they can advocate for.

 Sincerely,

 Your Name

***

MI City Council Email Addresses:

bruce.bassett@mercergov.org

debbie.bertlin@mercergov.org

dan.grausz@mercergov.org

jeff.sanderson@mercergov.org

Wendy.Weiker@mercergov.org

David.Wisenteiner@mercergov.org

Benson.Wong@mercergov.org

***

The parties do not appear far apart on the list of issues. Vision Mercer Island hopes that by educating people about these issues we can identify win/win solutions and encourage a good, expedient and public process.

Key Issues on the Table — Vision Mercer Island Blog

Last year, Vision Mercer Island surveyed over 1,100 island residents to understand transportation priorities. Not surprisingly, only 16% felt they were “well” or “thoroughly” informed about the specifics surrounding the mobility impacts of Light Rail.  That said, residents were very clear about what was important to them.

86% agreed that the City Council should negotiate fiercely for MI priorities, even if it means playing hardball with other agencies and cities, and only 27% are unwilling to make tradeoffs in a negotiation. 54% think Light Rail will be good for MI.

Here are the issues being negotiated (note that all will be subjects of more detailed follow-up posts):

HOV Access: The deal cut in 1976 allows all Mercer Island traffic (including single occupant vehicles) to use the center Express Lanes. When these lanes close in 2017, new HOV lanes will be striped from I-405 to Seattle. 94% support continuing this eligibility. This issue is more important than tolling to Islanders.

Why it’s a win/win: Without MI traffic in these new HOV lanes, they will be operating at under 50% peak capacity. Since buses won’t be using the HOV lanes because of Light Rail, the best use of that capacity is to remove cars from the general purpose lanes.

Parking: Today, ~50% of the MI Park and Ride is taken by off-island commuters. This will get worse when the Bellevue Way P&R closes in February 2017. 85% support zoning the MI P&R for MI commuters. While 100% reserved is unrealistic, 75-85% probably meets the needs. Most Light Rail riders will be existing bus riders, so it’s unclear that a second lot is needed. Sound Transit could easily create a restricted fund to incentivize developers to install added commuter parking.

Why it’s a win/win: 60% of projected MI daily Light Rail riders think reliable parking is extremely or critically important. Sound Transit wants people to use Light Rail and they want people walking, busing or driving to the closest stop, not the last stop before Seattle.

Bus Intercept: Once Light Rail Eastlink opens, buses will no longer cross the I-90 bridge. They will stay on the east side. Buses should connect passengers to Light Rail in a way that minimizes travel time, variability and impact from buses parking and turning around. All of those conditions will be met at the new Bellevue P&R.  Only 46% prioritize this issue.

Why it’s a win/win: Sound Transit’s own analysis shows that “intercepting” at the new Bellevue P&R will be equal travel time for commuters but significantly more reliable, while also allowing better logistics.

HOV Enforcement and Cut-Through Traffic: Approximately 20% of peak hour traffic exiting onto Mercer Island is cutting through to gain HOV eligibility or to shave a few seconds off their commute. Exiting and re-merging adds 10-20% to peak traffic delays on I-90 and clogs local streets and ramps. Less than 24% of Islanders would oppose existing, affordable camera-based technology to automate HOV lane enforcement and prevent cut-throughs.

Why it’s a win/win: Enforcing HOV lane integrity is an important responsibility for WSDOT. Limiting cut-throughs improves travel times on I-90. Available and proven technology relieves burden on State Patrol officers.

Loss of Ramps: 25% of traffic between Mercer Island and Seattle uses the reversible on/off ramp at 77th Ave SE near the Town Center. In 2017, this ramp will be permanently closed with no replacement. Traffic will back up on other ramps and, for the 6-7 years of construction, buses will weave across lanes of traffic in the lid tunnel as they attempt to access other ramps from the HOV lanes. Not surprisingly, 82% of Islanders support new ramps to prevent this.

Why it’s a win/win: While it may be expensive ($15-20M), direct access ramps will meaningfully improve bus performance during Light Rail construction. Afterwards, those ramps will remain critical for smoothing flow for MI traffic using the HOV lanes.

Access To Light Rail: Approximately 35% of projected daily riders think regular shuttle access from their neighborhood is critical. Bicycle facilities connecting neighborhoods to Light Rail is important to 21% of Islanders and 35% believe improved pedestrian access will impact their likelihood to ride the train. Metro has been experimenting with different models of intra-Island mobility and can certainly continue. Sound Transit is already committed to bicycle and pedestrian improvements at and near the station. Sound Transit could also offer restricted funding to the City to improve and experiment with options for getting commuters from homes and businesses to the Light Rail station.

Why it’s a win/win: Encouraging ridership is a shared goal. Getting people to the station efficiently is good for everyone.

Transit Capacity: Mercer Island is the last stop between the eastern suburbs and Seattle. While buses are full all over the region, they are particularly full here. Sound Transit and Metro are aware of the needs to monitor capacity to ensure that MI commuters, like all riders, are able to find seats.

Why it’s a win/win: Seat availability encourages ridership, which is a shared goal.

Construction, Post Construction and Public Safety: I-90 construction closures severely impact mobility on and around the Island. 80% of Islanders would prefer overnight closures to weekend closures, ranking behind only HOV eligibility, tolling and public safety in priority. MI first responders have specific training needs as well as minor requests for station design. Residents are also concerned about noise, both during construction and operation, in light of the negative experience with the new SR520 bridge.

Why it’s a win/win: I-90 mobility and safety is a regional issue and construction closures impact everyone. Neither Sound Transit nor WSDOT want noise complaints during or after construction.

Legal Construct: It’s critical that any new agreement be in clear harmony with the 1976 MOU and 2004 Amendment. These binding agreements protect Mercer Island from changes to the configuration and operation of the I-90 facility. These rights do not disappear when Light Rail is constructed. Mercer Island also has very specific legal obligations surrounding permits, especially the Shoreline Permit.

Why it’s a win/win: Sound Transit and WSDOT want certainty around their schedules and permits. Mercer Island wants to be on sound legal footing and make sure there aren’t future surprises in how I-90 is configured and operated.

So what can you do?

Email the Mercer Island City Council today and let them know you care about the outcome of these negotiations. Tell them to get unified quickly. Tell them the people of Mercer Island know a good win/win deal from a bad deal.

Write your own email or feel free to copy the one below. Either way, nothing will happen if you don’t make yourself heard.

***

Dear Mercer Island City Council,

I care about the outcome of the current transportation negotiations and am concerned the City is on the wrong track. Please work together as a unified Council and stand up for win/win solutions the Island and region can get behind.  Get the deal specifics on the table and don’t be afraid to play hardball.  This is a once-in-a-generation negotiation. Please get it right.

Sincerely,

***

MI City Council Email Addresses:

bruce.bassett@mercergov.org

debbie.bertlin@mercergov.org

dan.grausz@mercergov.org

jeff.sanderson@mercergov.org

Wendy.Weiker@mercergov.org

David.Wisenteiner@mercergov.org

Benson.Wong@mercergov.org

***

The parties do not appear far apart on the list of issues. Vision Mercer Island hopes that by educating people about these issues we can identify win/win solutions and encourage a good, expedient and public process.

 

Welcome to Vision Mercer Island Blog

Welcome to the Vision Mercer Island blog, your source to understand transportation issues affecting Mercer Island and the region.

VMI was founded in the summer of 2015 by a dedicated group of civic-minded Mercer Islanders. We
saw that Islanders were (and still are) not fully aware of the major issues and our City and leaders had
neither the time, resources nor expertise to tackle the myriad of looming, complex transportation
decisions.

HOV/Access: In 2017, the center Express Lanes of I-90 will be permanently closed for construction of
Light Rail. The I-90 outer lanes are being restriped to add a full-time HOV lane in each direction. The
reversible ramp at 77th Ave SE is being decommissioned.

Parking: The South Bellevue Park and Ride will close in February 2017 for several years. The Island Crest
Way ramps are being reconfigured. Major bus service changes impact local traffic.

Cut Thru Traffic: I-90 commuters are increasingly cutting through Mercer Island, clogging ramps and
merges, causing even longer highway delays. And a new light rail station is being built near the MI Park
and Ride, raising questions about how Island commuters will get to the train.

These are complex issues that will impact mobility on, off and around the Island for decades.

Mercer Island faced a similar situation when the existing I-90 facility was proposed. Mayor Aubrey Davis, for whom Lid Park is named, led a once-in-a-generation negotiation resulting in a landmark 1976 win-win agreement. The island got access to the HOV lanes, lid parks, and other concessions, while the
region got a state-of-the-art highway through the heart of Mercer Island.

That agreement also mandated that any future changes to the I-90 facility had to be renegotiated. Now,
forty years later, we are again faced with a once-in-a-generation negotiation.

So VMI raised a lot of money to hire expertise – traffic, engineering, legal, environmental, policy, market research, PR and other – so that we could become subject matter experts on every aspect of the
transportation changes coming to our City and region.

Our mission is threefold:

  1. Educate people on the complex transportation issues
  2. Advocate for good decision making processes
  3. Facilitate win-win solutions for Mercer Island and the region

To date, we have been largely out of the public eye, trying to educate, advocate and facilitate quietly
and efficiently. Our research and analysis indicates that there are win-win solutions that all of the
parties – Mercer Island, Sound Transit, WSDOT, Metro, King County, and the Federal Highway
Administration – can agree meet their needs. We’ve shared this with all of them.

Unfortunately, the institutional bureaucracy at all levels has made it hard for decision makers to truly
understand the issues and come to a timely agreement.

So now Vision Mercer Island is reaching out directly to educate the people impacted. Like us on
Facebook over the coming days and weeks as we provide you with what we hope is valuable information
concerning the massive transportation changes in our future.

So what can you do?

Email the Mercer Island City Council today and let them know you care about the outcome of these negotiations. Tell them to get unified quickly. Tell them the people of Mercer Island know a good win/win deal from a bad deal.

Write your own email or feel free to copy the one below. Either way, nothing will happen if you don’t make yourself heard.

***

Dear Mercer Island City Council,

I care about the outcome of the current transportation negotiations and am concerned the City is on the wrong track. Please work together as a unified Council and stand up for win/win solutions the Island and region can get behind.  Get the deal specifics on the table and don’t be afraid to play hardball.  This is a once-in-a-generation negotiation. Please get it right.

Sincerely,

***

Mercer Island City Council Email Addresses:

bruce.bassett@mercergov.org

debbie.bertlin@mercergov.org

dan.grausz@mercergov.org

jeff.sanderson@mercergov.org

Wendy.Weiker@mercergov.org

David.Wisenteiner@mercergov.org

Benson.Wong@mercergov.org