The December 15th Seattle Times front-page article “Mercer Island fights to keep special HOV access for drivers” is just the “beginning of the end” of Islanders’ easy access to Seattle. It exemplifies what happens when a city council accepts Sound Transit’s claims for benefits from light rail for their commute into and out of Seattle and approves the permits they need for East Link. As recently as a Dec 6th email, Sound Transit still continues to claim East Link will provide Islanders access to high quality, frequent service for 2000 Islander boarders and attract development near light rail station. Despite the fact East Link will provide one 4-car train every 8 minutes that will, at least during peak commute, be full well before they reach the island station.
The Times article tells the area what Mercer Island residents learned at a Sept. 19, 2016 council meeting presentation, “I-90 Access & East Link Light Rail Project Update”. The presentation was in response to an August FHWA notification they would not allow single occupancy vehicles (SOV) to use the HOV lane on Mercer Island for access to 1-90 Bridge. The FHWA letter was in response to Mayor Bassett’s June presentation to the FHWA and members of Congress advocating for MI SOV use of HOV lanes. Sound Transit, WSDOT, and Mercer Island officials apparently "neglected" to involve the FHWA earlier.
A draft of the Mercer Island response to the FHWA, “I-90 Mercer Island Access Alternatives” was presented at the November 7, 2016 Mercer Island City Council meeting, and then again to the community at a public meeting on November 9. My guess is the likely result will be MI cross-lake commuters having to endure the long lines other I-90 corridor SOV commuters encounter on controlled onramps.
Even if Islanders manage to avoid the need to use controlled onramps their cross-lake commuters will quickly encounter the same outer roadway congestion all I-90 corridor commuters will likely face. The problem is the WSDOT has no plans to demonstrate the 4th lanes added for HOV on outer roadways can make up for the loss of the two center roadway lanes closed for East Link. The FHWA concluded in a Sept 2004 Record of Decision that the R8-A configuration which added the 4th lanes to the outer roadways still required maintaining the two center roadways for vehicles.
If the FHWA is correct the resulting I-90 congestion will persuade many commuters to pay tolls on SR-520 and “force” the WSDOT to implement HOT on I-90 bridge sufficient to “maintain” 45 mph, something they’ve been planning to do since 2007. I’ll leave it to others to decide whether the increased revenue influenced their decision not to require the demonstration.
Thus East Link construction will likely result in Mercer Island commuters, like all I-90 corridor commuters, facing either heavy congestion on I-90 Bridge GP lanes or very expensive commutes on HOT lanes. The only exceptions will be those able to use transit. MI could maximize Islander ability to do so by allowing only residents to pay a monthly or annual fee for one of the 450 stalls in the P&R. Those using the parking would also get a commensurate transit pass. Additional parking and transit service could be part of Sound Transit’s “loss of mobility” compensation.
They will need it if they expect to get transit for the 2000 MI boarders Sound Transit projects for East Link station. Again, the problem being East Link will provide a maximum of one 4-car train every 8 minutes or thirty 74-seat light rail cars an hour. If 80% of the projected 50,000 daily ridership Sound Transit projects for East Link are from the east side they will result in 20,000 morning and afternoon commutes into and out of Seattle. Its going to take “considerable time” for the 30 cars to accommodate 20,000 riders no mater how many Sound Transit claims for each car.
Thus, many of the 2000 Mercer Island commuters, being the last with access to East Link, will likely have to depend on transit buses for their commute into Seattle at least during the peak commute. The “loss of mobility” compensation could at least provide some combination of additional P&R capacity and added bus routes within walking distance for commuters.
The bottom line is the island commuters’ potential inability to use HOV lanes to access I-90 is just the beginning of the end of their easy access to Seattle. The irony is if Sound Transit is allowed to proceed, MI commuters who will have lost the most from East Link will be the ones most forced to use buses for transit.
It didn’t have to happen. It’s time the council recognizes they, like the Bellevue City Council, made a monumental blunder when it approved the permits Sound Transit needed for East Link. Whether they will be able to use their considerable influence to prevent it remains to be seen. (One would think such blatant mendacity would be grounds for something.) However they owe it to their constituents (and the entire east side) to try.