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Mercer Island will sue to protect I-90 access

A 1976 freeway deal is at odds with Sound Transit plans

Joe Wolf

The good news is that Light Rail is heading over I-90 to connect the two sides of Lake Washington. The bad news, according to the Mercer Island City Council, is that the construction will limit Mercer Island’s special access to the highway. The council announced Monday that they’d take legal action against Sound Transit over the loss of a popular I-90 onramp from the island.

The impact statement for East Link construction, the council says, assumed that the Island Crest onramp would continue to serve both single occupancy vehicles (SOV) and high occupancy vehicles (HOV)—but Sound Transit recently announced that the ramp could be HOV-only during construction.

Back in 1976, a series of agreements were made that allowed islanders special access to the highways, lanes, and lots, including SOV access to HOV lanes on I-90. Now, light rail needs to take up some room, and current officials are interpreting federal regulations in ways that run contrary to those agreements. Islanders have reached the point where they find their best recourse is to sue Sound Transit and WSDOT.

“After two years of negotiation, we still have not reached a satisfactory agreement with Sound Transit and WSDOT that would avoid the diversion of heavy commuter traffic to local neighborhood streets and school zones,” Mercer Island Mayor Bruce Bassett said in a statement.

Transportation projects appreciate Mercer Island. They make the jump across Lake Washington much more reasonable. Islanders like and use them too. Problems crop up with the complexities of today’s highways and transit solutions. On-ramps and off-ramps are difficult enough, but adding in HOV lanes and parking lots complicate an otherwise apparently simple set of streets.

“Building fast and reliable light rail service across Lake Washington is not only a commitment to the residents of Bellevue, Redmond, Mercer Island and Seattle but to every resident of the Sound Transit District,” Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff said in a statement.

A resolution of the conflict is not clear. Both sides have considerable resources and strong incentives to hold their position. Time will tell whether old agreements and local access will take precedent over current regulations and regional development.