Standing up to demands for perpetual privilege, WSDOT has informed the city of Mercer Island that its 40-year special access to high occupancy lanes will end in June. At that time, the I-90 express lanes will permanently close for the 6-year construction of East Link, and additional HOV lanes will be added in the main roadway between Mercer Island and Seattle. Like everyone else, Mercer Islanders will be required to meet the HOV-2 standards to use the new HOV lanes.
Back in 2015, we wrote in no uncertain terms about the sense of entitlement embedded in Mercer Island’s demands for mitigation from the scourge of high capacity transit. Those unprecedented demands included permanent SOV access to HOV lanes, permanent exemption from future I-90 tolling, resident-only parking at the Mercer Island Station, complete abandonment of bus transfers on Mercer Island, and even dedicated and guaranteed seats for Islanders on Metro and Sound Transit buses.
To defend their claim, Mercer Island has argued that the 1976 agreement provided them with perpetual rights to HOV lanes, in intent if not the letter of the law. Section 1(e) of the agreement states:
The parties agree that the transit lanes shall operate initially in a two-way directional mode, at no less than 45 mph average speed, with the first priority to transit, the second to carpools, and the third to Mercer Island traffic.
Note that this special entitlement is both the lowest priority and only applies to the transit lanes themselves, and does not indicate that these privileges were in any way transferable to the outer roadway. Accordingly, in its February 1 response letter, WSDOT makes two claims: (1) that SOV access was intended to be temporary, and (2) that allowing SOV use of HOV lanes would violate federal law and jeopardize funding agreements.
As alternative long-term mitigation, WSDOT will study three alternative options (descriptors mine):
- The Good: conversion of the new I-90 HOV lanes to High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes, which would allow Islanders to have SOV access in exchange for something they have in abundance: money. The median home on Mercer Island is $1.3m, and median family income is $154,000.
- The Bad: building a new ramp from Island Crest Way to westbound I-90, adjacent to the east entrance of Mercer Island Station near 80th Ave NE. This would likely cost $60m or more, and possibly require some station redesign.
- The Ugly: Getting rid of HOV lanes entirely and returning I-90 to exclusively general purpose lanes, even though WSDOT admits this would contravene “regional mobility goals” and likely require repayment of federal grants.
In the short term, Islanders will lose their special access in June, and any future SOV accommodation would have to go through the full array of environmental review, cobbling together funding between various bodies, and the alphabet soup of agency approvals. Though Mercer Island is losing a uniquely privileged asset, the impacts are real and sensible mitigation is appropriate, including much greater frequency of Route 204 up and down Island Crest Way. But I humbly suggest that Mercer Island see their future Link station less as an impact deserving mitigation and more as an asset deserving of gratitude.