By Mary L. Grady
Islander Aubrey Davis is not a white-haired bureaucrat who tells stories about the past.
No, what you will learn during a conversation with Mr. Davis over a cup of hot chocolate at the new Starbucks on the North end is a man concerned not with the past, but the future.
An island resident for nearly 50 years, Davis has been a key figure in Mercer Island’s history.
Just two other individuals are mentioned more in the pages of the book, “Mercer Island Heritage,” the semi-official written record of the Island. The first is Ben Werner, a fellow city Councilman and mayor of Mercer Island who worked alongside Davis to rein in the scope and the impact of the I-90 project.
The other is Vitas Schmid, a German-born wagon-maker originally from Illinois, who filed a claim for Island land and built a cabin here in 1876.
The story of Schmid, who struggled to keep his claim in this unique and beautiful place, mirrors the story of Davis and the Islanders who took on the then-powerful Washington State Highway Commission in the 1970s.
Davis and others who took the state to task during the massive expansion of I-90 made a profound impact on the quality of life on Mercer Island and established its importance (and his influence) to the regional transportation network.
The 1976 Memorandum of Understanding with the state and others, hammered out in dozens of meetings and hearings, set the standard for public involvement in major civic projects throughout the region ever since.
In 1970, Davis formed a committee to protect the quality of life on the Island as the state set out to expand I-90 across the north end.
The committee and the lawsuit that followed charged that the State Department of Highways had failed to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act and improperly treated citizens whose property was within the project right of way.
The lawsuit halted construction on the East Channel Bridge while the issues were sorted out. Davis knew that working with the other communities affected along the corridor would strengthen not only the position of Islanders but would improve the entire project.
These efforts led to the MOU with the state that gave communities affected by the interstate certain rights, and the standing to object or intervene.
The MOU is still an important document within the ongoing discussions about I-90: from the rights of Islanders to drive alone in the center (express) lanes and the placement of facilities for future transit lanes and stations as well.
Davis has a long and rich professional life.
Davis has been in a leadership role at Group Health Cooperative since he was a founding member in 1947, serving for three years as the CEO. Appointed by Sen. Brock Adams, he headed the Northwest region office of the U.S. Department of Transportation.
He has served on boards and commissions regarding public works throughout his adult life: the Mercer Island City Council, serving as mayor for a four-year term; King County Metro; the Puget Sound Regional Council and many other working advisory groups regarding transportation issues.
In his current role on the board of the Puget Sound Regional Council, Davis keeps looking ahead. Keeping the momentum going on improving our regional transportation is paramount.
Yes, these new transit projects are underway, he said. But there is no time to waste.
“It is not time to sit back,” Davis said. “There is a crisis of funding for future transportation now. Projects underway now have come from sources that are drying up.”
With fewer miles being driven and more efficient vehicles on the road, the gas tax which provided a good surrogate for user fees, is now less effective than before. Tolling and other pricing methods for using roadways are unavoidable, he added. It is the next item on the list.
Now 92, Mr. Davis remains a full and active member in the discussion of growth and change for our region. He aims to keep focused on keeping Islanders and Puget Sound moving forward.
Mary L. Grady is the editor of the Mercer Island Reporter. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Mary L. Grady