“The Mercer Island I-90 Access & East Link Light Rail Project Update” presented at the Sept 19th 2016 council meeting is another example of the failure of the council to effectively deal with their constituents’ commuting problems. The update was in response to an August FHWA notification they would not allow single occupancy vehicles (SOV) to use the ICW HOV lane on Mercer Island for access to 1-90 Bridge.
MI SOV access was the result of mitigation between Sound Transit, WSDOT, and MI to compensate Islanders for “the loss of mobility” from Sound Transit’s I-90 Bridge center roadway closure in 2017. MI access via the HOV lane would have allowed SOV commuters to avoid using controlled onramps to access the bridge outer roadway. Doing so would avoid the long lines other I-90 corridor SOV commuters encounter on all the controlled onramps. MI SOV onramp lines will likely be even longer since they’re the last with access.
However, “WSDOT hints of a problem with the FHWA” with MI SOV "using the HOV lane" led to a formal query in March. In June the Mayor advocated for MI SOV use in a DC presentation to the FHWA and members of Congress. However, in August the FHWA responded citing federal prohibition on SOV traffic for any part of the HOV ramps or lanes.
The Sept 19th update described city plans to challenge the FHWA decision including using hired “experts” to assist in making a “formal rebuttal”. The rebuttal will include “proposing several alternatives to allow continued SOV access; requesting equitable solution for Islanders; and urging the State and King County to keep the agreements they made with our community.
It’s not clear what the alternatives are, why allowing Islanders to use SOV on HOV lanes is equitable, and what agreements the State and King County have to do with the issue. It’s also not clear why no one thought to “query” the FHWA about SOV use of HOV lanes until this March?
What is clear is this imbroglio is just the latest example of the failure of those responsible to deal with the area’s transportation problems. Even in the unlikely event they manage to obtain HOV access to I-90 Bridge outer roadway they’ll still face heavy congestion there.
The FHWA concluded in a 2004 Record of Decision (ROD) that the 4th lanes added to the outer roadway for HOV will not provide the capacity to make up for the loss of the two center roadway lanes. The current congestion along I-5 express lanes between Everett and Seattle typifies the problem.
Not only did the WSDOT “mislead” a federal judge with claims the modified outer roadways could accommodate all cross lake vehicles they’re allowing Sound Transit to close the center roadway without ever demonstrating that capacity.
Even more “interesting” was a chart in the “Update” entitled “40 Year History of Agreements Regarding Mercer Island access to I-90”. It included a “2006 letter from the Governor’s office & WSDOT to MI” for:
Reconfirming commitment to 1976 Memorandum Agreement and reaffirming that MI residents should be permitted HOV access until converted to HOT
It was followed with a “2007 letter from WSDOT to 1976 memorandum signatories” for:
Transmitting revised I-90 Access Plan and confirming access to R8A lanes until converted to HOT.
Both raise all sorts of interesting questions. For example why did the governor even get involved? Again, why didn’t the WSDOT and MI bother to ask the FHWA about the issue earlier? The letters both seem to suggest MI SOV commuters would have access to I-90 HOV lanes as well as onramps. It’s not clear how they intended to implement MI SOV cross-lake HOV lane access.
What’s “newsworthy” is the fact both letters also “suggest” the WSDOT had plans to initiate HOT on the I-90 HOV lane 10 years ago. It’s not clear when they intended to do so. My guess is they would quickly use the outer roadway congestion resulting from the center roadway closure to justify HOT. The tolls required to maintain 45 mph on the HOV lane will be “substantial” and those unable or unwilling to pay the tolls will only add to GP lane congestion. A cynic might suggest the WSDOT neglected to require Sound Transit demonstrate outer roadway capacity because of the anticipated toll revenue.
Yet MI officials went along with WSDOT plans despite the fact their commuters, even if they have easy access to I-90 Bridge, would be forced to pay the tolls to avoid congestion. It’s similar to their willingness to go along with an East Link whose operating schedule, one 4-car train every 8 minutes, will limit its capacity to about 6000 riders per hour in each direction. As a result, at least during the peak commute hours, light rail trains will be full well before they get to the island.
The bottom line is MI officials are ignoring the fact that Prop 1 will essentially end Islanders’ easy access to Seattle. They even refrain from advising Islanders vote against a Sound Transit 3 which does nothing to improve cross-lake commuting and only forces them to pay, undoubtedly far more than most, for 25 years. They deserve better.