Agency responds to city council’s vote to pursue legal action
Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff today issued the below statement on the Mercer Island City Council’s votes to pursue a lawsuit and permitting moratoria seeking to block the upcoming start of construction of East Link light rail in the center lanes of I-90 across Lake Washington.
“Legal agreements dating back to before the I-90 floating bridge was even built dedicated the center lanes for public transit. More than eight years ago regional voters approved the funding to build the East Link light rail project on those lanes. It is highly regrettable that the City of Mercer Island is now attempting to delay the project in mid-construction. Neither the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) nor Sound Transit are empowered to reverse the Federal Highway Administration’s decisions regarding access by single-occupant Mercer Island traffic to the new HOV lanes across Lake Washington. These lanes are on schedule to open in June, enabling us to stay on schedule constructing light rail. While Sound Transit remains ready to reach solutions through negotiations, the agency will take all legal actions necessary to avoid delays or increased costs to taxpayers in fulfilling our promise to voters to complete East Link. 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. Delays to the East Link project pose significant risks of increased costs to regional taxpayers and significant delays to opening the project in 2023.”
The 14-mile East Link light rail extension will provide reliable 24-minute trips from downtown Bellevue to downtown Seattle. Residents of the region have been paying increased taxes since 2009 to fund this and other projects contained in the 2008 ballot measure. Construction of the East Link project, which is scheduled to open in 2023, is currently underway.
Trains will travel across Lake Washington in the current center reversible lanes of I-90. Construction on I-90 is scheduled to begin in June after the completion of new HOV lanes in each direction on the outer roadways. These new lanes that WSDOT is constructing with Sound Transit funding will preserve the existing number of general purpose and HOV lanes on the bridge.
Sound Transit’s construction of light rail in the center lanes will realize plans and agreements for the bridge that have been in place since before the bridge’s construction. A 1976 memorandum of agreement between the Washington State Department of Transportation, King County and the cities of Mercer Island, Bellevue and Seattle dedicated the center lanes to transit and stipulated the bridge “shall be designed and constructed so that conversion of all or part of the transit roadway to fixed guideway is possible.”
The agreement stated that the center lanes would initially operate “with the first priority to transit, the second to carpools, and the third to Mercer Island traffic.” The 1978 decision by the U.S. Secretary of Transportation authorizing construction of the new bridge stipulated that “public transportation shall permanently have first priority in the use of the center lanes. The Washington State DOT will assure that general Mercer Island traffic use of the center lanes is controlled to the extent necessary to maintain bus and carpool speeds of 45 mph or greater.”
In 2004 all of the parties to the 1976 agreement and Sound Transit signed an amendment establishing plans for constructing high capacity transit in the center lanes. That conversion was stipulated to occur following the addition of one new HOV lane in each direction to the outer roadways. The 2004 amendment did not identify Mercer Island SOV access to the new HOV lanes as a project component, but instead provided that transportation studies would be used to determine if the changes to I-90 would cause a loss of mobility to and from Mercer Island and that WSDOT satisfactorily address any such loss. The 2004 Agreement stated, “To the extent of any loss of mobility to and from Mercer Island based on the outcome of studies, additional transit facilities and services such as additional bus service, parking available for Mercer Island residents, and other measures shall be identified and satisfactorily addressed by the Commission, in consultation with the affected jurisdictions….”
In 2005 Sound Transit joined with King County and the cities of Mercer Island, Bellevue and Seattle in sending WSDOT a letter voicing support for granting Mercer Island SOVs access to the new HOV lanes on I-90. However, last year the Federal Highway Administration notified WSDOT that federal law prohibits SOV access to HOV lanes. Sound Transit has been working with the City of Mercer Island and WSDOT to study whether there will be any negative mobility impacts to transportation to and from Mercer Island that require mitigation after the new two-way 24-hour HOV lanes and 20-hour-a-day light-rail service replace the one-way center roadway that operates only westbound in the morning and eastbound in the afternoon.
While pursuing legal remedies to protect regional taxpayers and commuters from increased costs and delayed service, Sound Transit will continue to work toward negotiated solutions with the City of Mercer Island and WSDOT.
For more information on East Link see soundtransit.org/eastlink.