Now that Mercer Island and Sound Transit have reached a settlement, the temperature on this dispute has gone down. Dan reported the key aspects:
- $4.5m-worth of new park-and-ride spaces (up to 200), plus 100 temporary spaces while South Bellevue is closed;
- an essentially status-quo level and pattern of bus traffic, aside from city-only buses;
- About $5m for congestion and safety projects, at the city’s discretion, and a Metro “last-mile” pilot project.
The new spaces will help, a little, but the fundamental issue remains. Even with the coming Link station, many residents rightfully despair of having a decent traffic-free alternative for getting off the island. There are several reasons for this predicament:
- An undersized park and ride (thanks to actions of previous Mercer Island governments, partially mitigated by the settlement).
- The appeal of this P&R to eastside commuters.
- Inadequate bus service from elsewhere on the Eastside, which encourages people to driving to Mercer Island instead. The settlement actually intensifies this problem.
- A road grid not suited to rapid feeder bus service
- The expiration of previous special express lane privileges. It would appear the agreement closes this issue, much to the relief of many disgusted outsiders.
Taken together, beyond a select set of early risers, the options to escape gridlock seem to be shrinking, not growing. While Mercer Island’s wealth shouldn’t exclude it from the same dynamics as everyone else, when combining it with the Link station there are opportunities to make the situation a lot better.
It’s not clear what specific projects the Sound Transit money will fund, or if the city will add any of its own. There is certainly a temptation to use it to buy off interest groups. But the core of the complaint is a lack of alternatives to congestion on I-90, and many potential projects won’t do anything to avoid that. Instead, there are some other projects (two of which are revenue-positive!) that would go far in addressing some of the five problems above.
1. Ask for a fee at the park and ride. Sound Transit would love to implement this at a spot where they won’t get blowback. Even a nominal fee would provide strong incentives for outsiders to park at other stations, and discourage Islanders with alternatives from driving and parking alone at the station.
2. Ask for tolling on I-90. In a similar dynamic, WSDOT is full of engineers who understand the merits of congestion pricing and are looking for a place to do it that is not poisonous. It will definitely help Mercer Islanders willing to pay for congestion relief. Indeed, a toll limited to the East span would be a boon for those headed into Seattle, and keep yet more outsiders from the Park & Ride.
3. Better station access. Better, safer bike and pedestrian pathways would open up the station to more residents given the same number of parking spaces.
4. Satellite Lots and Feeder buses. Just as Seattle voted to tax itself to improve its feeder buses, Mercer Island can do the same. Bringing most residents within an easy walk of a frequent bus is prohibitively expensive due to the road non-grid. On the other hand, Island Crest Way is a serviceable spine, most residents have cars to get there, and many lots are not full during peak travel times. Some (over-)investment in direct, extremely high frequency buses might make it an attractive alternative to praying for parking at the North end of the Island.
As Mercer Island’s special privileges erode, not everyone will come out ahead with the coming changes. However, Link is a huge opportunity for Islanders if their government remains clearly focused on maximizing station access. For all the hard feelings from the lawsuit, let’s hope they do so.