[Update: the original post incorrectly implied that the Mercer Island city council meeting will be on 9/16, when it in fact will be on Tuesday 9/15. This has been fixed.]
It’s hard to believe that more than ten years have passed since Bellevue and Sound Transit began their long slog over East Link routing. It took rounds of council meetings, open houses, endless studies, and competing community activism to get to a compromise that both agencies continue to champion today.
Although neither side got exactly what they wanted, both the City of Bellevue and Sound Transit managed to escape the saga free of litigation directly between the two parties. This accomplishment is precisely what makes Mercer Island’s recent actions particularly frustrating. Bellevue — arguably responsible for higher decision-making impact — managed to abstain from habitual litigiousness; yet this act is somehow beneath Mercer Island.
Readers may recall that the 2017 Settlement Agreement was only the result of first a suit from Mercer Island and then a subsequent counter-suit from Sound Transit. Sadly, the city council’s recent announcement shows that the agreement was merely a short reprieve from what looks to be a lengthy legal contest. Most disappointing is the impact that this will potentially have on the rest of East Link’s beneficiaries.
Sound Transit is slated to seek permits for construction of the street-level interchange this month. As Brent pointed out a couple weeks back, this legal recourse is timely designed to throw a wrench into that process. Although progress on the actual Link station continues, terminus planning for all Eastside routes connecting to the Mercer Island Station will be thrown into flux until this is all resolved. In the worst case outcome, East Link opening is delayed and the majority of Bellevue and Redmond-based riders will be left tapping their fingers.
What ultimately qualifies this move as political gamesmanship is that Mercer Island does not have a clear advantage in the legal arena. The implementation of the preferred 77th Ave SE configuration was expressly contingent on Metro’s concurrence with the 2017 agreement. Although the City claims this was obtained in October 2017, Metro’s letter made clear that there remained open-ended questions on incorporating operational considerations in the technical design. A May 2019 letter from Metro further clarified that the agency’s concurrence has not yet been met.
The City has attempted to push back by claiming that the agency is not qualified to request modifications based on METRO CONNECTS, alleging it is a “long range planning document” rather than an “operational schedule.” This arguments holds little weight: long-range transit plans are always built around operational assumptions with heavy involvement from schedulers and service planners. Metro further supplemented its assessment on a separate operational study produced by David Evans & Associates. Short of hopping in a time machine to get the 2023 operator runcards, these documents are more than sufficient to justify the interchange modifications.
Moreover, if Sound Transit can legally argue that the bus-rail interchange is a critical component of East Link and its bus connections, the agency may also have grounding to invoke RCW 36.70A.200, which prohibits local municipalities from holding up the siting of an essential public facility. This leverage is augmented if the City’s actions result in a project-wide delay.
In order to finance this scheme, Mercer Island is taking to levying a temporary utility tax increase on its own citizens. It simply spells bad optics to reinforce the stereotype that a privileged community can tap into its residents’ wealth to hinder regional progress. Island residents who want to see transit move forward are encouraged to speak out against the tax increase. They can do so by registering for a speaking slot by 4pm today
tomorrow when the council plans to take up the relevant ordinance in the evening.