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

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