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#MIPL and the death of shame


mercer island

For today’s story of the death of shame among the privileged, we need to start with some background:

The above is an image of Mercer Island. For those unfamiliar with the topography of the Puget Sound region: Seattle is a long, thin city; around 20 miles from its northern to southern border but about 3-6 miles East to West, bounded by water on either side: Puget Sound to the West, and Lake Washington (which extends slightly beyond Seattle both North and South) to the East. This lake sharply separates Seattle from its Eastern suburbs, which have for some time been the location of many (but not all) of the wealthier sections of the region, with the middle class and historically more downscale suburbs generally located to the North and South of the city. Lake Washington has but one island: Mercer. At approximately 13 square miles and a population of around 25,000, Mercer Island is the most populous island on a lake in the United States. Culturally and economically, Mercer Island belongs squarely on the Eastside, as it has become one of the wealthier towns of its size in the country, with an average household income well north of 130,000 and an average home value of 1.4 million. It enjoys excellent schools and parks, and is made up almost entirely of low-density single family homes.

Long ago, Mercer Island was primarily rural. One of the first major projects was a Gilded Age opulent resort, the Caulkins Hotel, for Seattle’s elite. In 1908, a “Japanese houseboy” (sic) in the employ of the Caulkins took offense at some unspecified act of verbal abuse from hotel management, and in retaliation stuffed a large number of oily rags in a chimney, causing the hotel to burn down. Left behind, however, was an extensive dock that spurred some development in the island’s Northwest corner, which eventually incorporated as “East Seattle.” The island remained accessible by private boat and by steamboats such as the Atlanta, which connected Mercer Island to Seattle well into the 1930’s. A bridge to Bellevue on the Eastside was completed in 1928, and, following pressure from prominent islanders, the construction of the Lacey V. Murrow Memorial bridge, named for WSDOT’s second director and journalist Edward Murrow’s older brother, in 1940, then the largest floating bridge in the world. (Today, it is second only to the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge, a second Lake Washington crossing that doesn’t connect to Mercer Island, just a few miles to the North.) In 1976, the bridge became part of I-90. A much wider second bridge was added in 1989, dramatically increasing capacity. This was Followed almost immediately by the sinking of the original Murrow bridge in a storm over Thanksgiving weekend–a dramatic event I recall watching live on television as a teenager. The Murrow bridge was repaired/replaced, at great public expense, by 1993, giving I-90 its current capacity. The 1940 bridge was largely paid for by a bond paid off by tolls, which ended after about 10 years. The new bridges were not.

Presently, these bridges and the freeway segment they form give Mercer Island residents, on average, the shortest commute times of any city in the region, a particularly remarkable statistic for an island connected to the mainland via a high-traffic bridge, with virtually no residents who work on the island itself. How do they pull off this remarkable feat? Location is part of it; the island is very close to downtown Seattle to the West and Bellevue, the largest city and second-largest job center on the Eastside, to the East. While traffic on the bridge can be quite brutal during rush hour, Mercer Island residents have a unique arrangement that allows them to access the HOV lands Westbound to Seattle as SOVs. This arrangement, codified via a memorandum of understand during negotiations over the construction and future plans for I-90 in 1976, was always meant to be temporary: the center lanes of the new bridge, reversible for increasing peak direction capacity, were designed explicitly with eventual light rail in mind. (The temporary nature of the arrangement was, in particular, highlighted by the Federal Highway Administration, whose regulations don’t generally allow for this kind of arrangement). Several decades later, the time has come: construction is scheduled to begin on Eastlink, which will take these center lanes for rail from downtown Seattle various Eastside locations, with a stop on Mercer Island.

Construction of Eastlink necessitates taking the center lanes currently used for HOV, and last month WSDOT told the city formally that their SOV freeloading days are over: they will no longer have uniquely privileged access to HOV lanes, and will be forced to access the city the way the rest of plebes do: in normal, high volume SOV lanes. (Or by bus, but who are we kidding?) The Seattle Times reported on this back in December:

Mercer Island officials insist they’re not asking for special treatment, but for the transportation agencies to honor agreements that date to 1976. Direct access to the express lanes and thick sound walls and a massive lid were part of a mitigation package agreed to after Mercer Island sued over the planned expansion of I-90 from five to eight lanes more than two decades ago.

The negotiated settlement was meant to compensate the island for the noise, pollution and loss of prime real estate at the north edge of its downtown, said Bissonette. The access was also an acknowledgment that I-90 is Mercer Island’s only connection to the surrounding region.


But the FHWA in August said it wasn’t a party to any of those agreements. Daniel Mathis, the agency’s Washington division administrator, in a letter to the city, said that allowing solo Mercer Island drivers access to the new I-90 HOV lanes would violate federal law that generally restricts access to transit, carpools and motorcycles.

The feds noted that Mercer Island has 15 entrance and exit points to and from I-90 and will have the same number once the new HOV lanes are completed.

The good people of Mercer Island, it should be noted, voted for the ST2 package that authorized and funded Eastlink in 2008, and have been paying taxes for it since 2009. But a couple of years ago, their discontent was becoming apparent. Sound Transit, as a regional agency beholden to various local politicians, has a habit of bending over backwards for the municipalities it serves, even at the cost of sensible transit policy (ie, routing near a freeway, rather than where people actually live and work, so as to “minimize disruption from construction), but Mercer Island’s requests have been remarkable. From two years ago, they included:

Permanent SOV access to HOV lanes
Permanent exemption from I-90 tolling
Resident-only parking at the Link Station
Complete abandonment bus transfers on Mercer Island
Dedicated and guaranteed seats for Islanders on Metro and Sound Transit buses

As Shaner notes, each and every one one of these privileges would be entirely unique to Mercer Island: Sound Transit often has projects that disproportionately benefit residents of a particular community, but nothing in their mandate current configuration suggests they can or should restrict access based on the address of the user. The “bus transfer” issue is a particularly important one; for many Eastside bus routes headed for downtown, it will make more sense–providing shorter commute times for riders and saving service hours that can increase frequency or coverage–to terminate routes that used to go into downtown Seattle at an Eastlink station, and this has always been the plan. For a lot of Eastside routes, the easiest and fastest connection will be Mercer Island station. This, of course, would have auxilliary benefits for the Mercer Island transit user–their light rail station would also be a hub for one seat rides to a variety of Eastside destinations. (The Northlink line, under simultaneous construction, has a similar plan for buses coming from points North to Seattle; put the riders on the train at Lynnwood, and save them from being stuck in traffic on the bus. Mercer Island opposes this plan, however, because they don’t want to deal with the impact of bus transit. In contrast, Lynnwood openly embraces the good fortune of being a future transit hub, and has aggressively upzoned around the planned Lynnwood station, in hopes that the excellent transit access of there will create a node of dense walkability the sprawling suburb currently lacks. Mercer Island’s station will be located in their already-existing small downtown commercial area, and they’ve planned for light rail in a different way: downzoning their downtown area with a new two story limit on new construction, in order to protect their fair citizens from the horror of seeing any transit oriented development on their way to a comfortable, easy 10 minute commute into the center of Downtown Seattle.

Formal notification from WSDOT that, in compliance with FHA regulations, the special HOV access would end in June, when the center lanes are lost and HOV lanes are moved, came last month. On Monday night, Mercer Island’s city council voted unanimously to sue Sound Transit and WSDOT to stop Eastlink construction, a multi-billion dollar project in the works for nearly a decade that they themselves have voted for. There is no doubt this change will adversely effect traffic on the island and commute times for Islanders, but of course this simply means they’ll no longer get an exemption from living in a high-traffic, high-congestion city. No more special access for SOV polluters just for living in the richest city in the region.

The suit is pretty shameless, and is probably best understood as a stalling tactic and/or a shakedown to get more ST “impact” money toward a new ramp. Playing hardball, against the greater good, to fight for the interests of those you represent is politics. The staggering shamelessness comes from the actual citizens who showed up to the meeting. Erica C Barnett documented the atrocities via twitter, storified here.

A few of my favorites:

And now for the coup de grace. The award for outstanding achievement in the field of excellence in shamelessness goes to some unnamed Mercer Island resident whose comment Barnett correctly highlighted:

Hanging on to this award in the Trump era will not be easy, but this guy may just have a chance.

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  • rewenzo

    Permanent SOV access to HOV lanes
    Permanent exemption from I-90 tolling
    Resident-only parking at the Link Station
    Complete abandonment bus transfers on Mercer Island
    Dedicated and guaranteed seats for Islanders on Metro and Sound Transit buses

    These are all nuts but “dedicated and guaranteed seats for Islanders” on buses? I would make another Mercer Island of their skulls for their impertinence.

    • sigaba

      These are all nuts but “dedicated and guaranteed seats for Islanders” on buses?

      What if the seats were at the back of the buses?

  • N__B

    I’m gonna beat Hogan to the punch with the best ‘merican short story of the twentieth century. Wealthy islanders are ripe for the plucking. Note that there are spoilers at the link.

    • djw

      I have a paperback of that collection, picked up from a 50 cent bin at a used bookstore, but I’ve never delved into it.

      • N__B

        Then you’ve got a treat waiting. Maybe a quarter of the stories have aged badly, a quarter are good, and the rest great.

        • howard

          I endorse this endorsement.

      • jim, some guy in iowa

        once I started I had to finish, for what that’s worth

    • vic rattlehead

      The continental op books fucking own. I just finished Red Harvest on the train a few weeks ago.

      • N__B

        The Dain Curse gets an asterisk, but yeah.

      • I should read the rest of Hammett’s bibliography one of these days. The Maltese Falcon is a stone-cold classic, of course. I think I have one of the Library of America’s omnibuses of much of his work.

        • N__B

          The Glass Key. Trust me on this.

          • Thanks; I’ll make that one my top priority. I presume they used it as the name of an award for Nordic crime noir for good reason.

    • IIRC with Russian émigrés as the bad guys too!

  • sigaba

    Mercer Island: “We are the Dakota Access Pipeline tribe.” I can’t make this shit up.

    There seems to be this general trend of appropriating “oppression” critical theory and just sorta applying it willy-nilly to everything that bothers you, given you can construe yourself into a minority. Witness the application of the Civil Rights narrative to Betsy DeVos, or in a more dry example, conservative Christians calling unisex bathrooms “totalitarianism” without a hint of irony.

    In LA of course we’ve had no lack of this sort of nonsense from the Beverly Hills city government and Potemkin Neighborhood Associations fighting development and transit for reasons that boil down to aesthetics.

    • McAllen

      If you think that speaking about oppression is not an attempt to highlight injustice but an effective tactic employed by your enemies to shut down arguments, then obviously the solution is to start doing it, too.

      • sigaba

        See like, my instinct is to do the exact opposite, and to always try to argue my point on the merits, because what’s the point in winning if you can’t actually justify your reasons yourself and your argument’s just some tactical arglebargle? But this is probably why I’m not in city government. My dad was a city manager and ran for state house rep several times and I promised I’d never do that job.

        Also these quotes are from people on the island talking amongst themselves, and describing their own plight, in a way that seems to be honest to them. They really seem to believe it, it’s not some tactic to shut down other people because there’s no one there disputing them.

    • UserGoogol

      Conservatives have been talking about their loss of privilege in the language of oppression for as long as there’s been conservatives. Some of it’s cynical, but human beings in general are inclined to think they deserve to keep things they like having, even in cases of privilege as blatant and petty as letting SOV drivers ride in the HOV lane.

  • Warren Terra

    Or by bus, but who are we kidding?

    For those not familiar, the bus service is excellent (so long as you’re going to the university or downtown, but most commuters will be), and there are large park-and-ride lots so you can get from your single-family house to the bus.

    • djw

      But nefarious and wicked off-islanders come and steal their parking spaces! Sometimes the lot is full before 8:00 am, the poor dears.

      Note that nothing is stopping the city from building additional parking facilities; they want privileged access to the p&r built and paid for by the regional transit authority.

      • Patrick

        A p&r which Mercer Islanders successfully fought to be smaller than the regional transit agencies wanted, because it would be out of scale. And within a year or two of opening they complained it was filling up too quickly, and with those dastardly off islanders.

        • djw

          Oh, man, I forgot about that

        • Warren Terra

          I’m a little confused about how the P&R could even fill with off-islanders. Do they really drive onto the island, on I-90, then get off the highway and park and ride in order to continue their journey on the bus? What’s the logic there?

          • djw

            Yes. There are P&Rs scattered around the Eastside, and many of them fill up quickly. (We could fix that by charging for them, rather than making them free, which would also have the happy effect of reducing the extent to which we use our precious transit funding as another source of subsidy for driving, but I digress). It’s probably as close as some of the South Bellevue ones for some eastsiders–the distance from South Bellevue, Beaux Arts, Factoria, etc isn’t that far at all, with a shorter bus ride as well.

          • Patrick

            Parking in the downtown core can be 150-300 a month, so taking your car 2/3rds of the way to a free park and ride is attractive. Especially if your work provides a free bus pass, which many in Seattle do.

            • LosGatosCA

              No T-Bones for white people on the public subsidy though, so it’s not like welfare.

  • Jackov

    In 1908, a Japanese houseboy in the employ of the Caulkins took offense at some unspecified act of verbal abuse from hotel management, and in retaliation stuffed a large number of oily rags in a chimney, causing the hotel to burn down.

    The above sentence needs an edit.

    • Warren Terra

      No, really, that’s how adult human workers were referred to at the time. This shouldn’t be bowdlerized out of memory.

    • djw

      I’d meant to include a link for that story.


      Is it bad form to use the term in its archaic but historically accurate context?

      • Vance Maverick

        Maybe put it in quotes?

        • Warren Terra

          or add “[sic]”

          • Vance Maverick

            Or, indeed, both!

      • Jackov

        The fix is appreciated.
        I assumed it was not your original phrasing but always better to make the origin clear.

  • n00chness

    Also worth noting is that the mitigation of I-90 through MI is among the most beautiful, impressive and I assume expensive in the nation.

    Experiencing I-90 through MI is something to akin to what the ancient Babylonians must have felt while strolling through their Hanging Gardens.

    • Col Bat Guano

      I am a Mercer Island HS grad (77) and some of us realized way back then that this day was coming. Not only did they hold out for the deluxe capping of I-90, they also got the HOV lane exemption. It was obvious the state would cut it off eventually. That it took this long is still baffling. That the overprivileged residents would go nuts was also obvious.

      • wengler

        No kidding. You give someone crazy privilege for 40 years and of course they’ll go nuts when you take it away. These people were in first class for four decades and suddenly they are back with us proles in coach.

        • Rob in CT

          You give someone crazy privilege for 40 250 years and of course they’ll go nuts when you take it away

          Slightly amended to explain our current national nightmare.

          • Ahuitzotl

            You give someone crazy privilege for 40 250 years and of course they’ll go nuts when you take a small part of it away

            further added for clarification

  • Cheerfull

    Hey my dad grew up on Mercer Island. To get to high school he had to hitch hike to the ferry dock, take the ferry and then a tram across Seattle. These people have suffered! Or their ancestors! or the people they bought the small houses from, razed, and replaced with mansions shoulder to shoulder on the water!

    Another historical note – around 1910 a city planner hired by Seattle, Bogue, proposed that the entire island be turned into one large nature park. At about 6,000 acres it would have been one of the coolest in the country. Bogue also proposed light rail and a system of parks in Seattle. The good citizens of the city voted it down 2-1.

  • Breadbaker

    The surprise is they didn’t demand light rail cars that didn’t stop at the first stop in Seattle, which is a rather different neighborhood.

  • MikeMc

    Let me engage in some mind reading. I lived in south Orange County, Ca so I know the type.

    Sure they use the language of the oppressed to describe themselves and the terrible commuting plight but what it really comes down to is property rights. When they bought their home on MI it came with these rights (whatever those are – here an enviable commute). Outsiders changing anything they like is theft. It’s that simple.

    Change that might make their lives worse is unthinkable. Only life’s losers have to compromise for the common good.

    • Origami Isopod

      And, voilà, there is this comment at djw’s Seattle Times link from December:

      As a mercer island resident, I would like to point out that the HOV lane access is part of our property value. Taking that away is robbing us. You can't just rob people because you are more powerful or you believe that you are doing a favor for many other people. You just can't rob.

      • numbers

        This is the distorting effect of homeownership in a nutshell. When most of your net worth is in a single object, whose value depends so strongly on network effects and neighbors and intangibles, it turns most people into raging assholes on pure self-interest grounds.

  • Origami Isopod

    #Listen2Mercer is a beautiful thing.

    As for co-opting the language of the oppressed: do a GIS on “Les Deplorables.” It’s amazing.

  • Harkov311

    Oh jesus, this is suburban privilege at its Drama King worst.

    I love how they think their property values should be sacred and protected forever, even though buying a home is a gamble. They’re basically insisting that the government rig their home purchase gamble in their favor forever.

    As UserGoogol notes, some people start to think that perks are actually rights, just because they always had them. See also: segregation and men-only employment ads.

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