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.