Transportation: Western Washington’s No. 1 challenge

This view of I-90 looks east from Mercer Island toward Bellevue and the I-405 interchange. Photo by Chad Coleman.

This view of I-90 looks east from Mercer Island toward Bellevue and the I-405 interchange. Photo by Chad Coleman.

By Mary L. Grady
Reporter Newspapers
What is happening here?
To even the least jaded of commuters, the transportation system in the central Puget Sound region is a jumble of acronyms and staggering numbers.
It is confusing on any scale. Why do we need to pay more to ride a Sound Transit bus rather than Metro? We see WSDOT signs along I-405 and SR-167, yet wonder who sets and collects those HOT lane tolls.
Congestion is no longer something faced by those driving in and out of Seattle — it has crept east and south to neighborhoods and towns, both big and small. Whether we realize it or not, the flaws and foibles of the region’s transportation networks have ingrained themselves into our daily lives.
Uncertainty and longer commute times have taught us many things. It is important to pay attention to changes brought about by freeway shut-downs for major construction — we log on to computers or listen to the radio before we set out for work.
Somehow, these lifeless ribbons of concrete and steel are no longer just part of the landscape; they make news.
When the I-90 bridge sank in 1990, Puget Sounders woke up to the fact that the concrete and steel we took for granted were indeed vulnerable. The 6.8 Nisqually earthquake on Feb. 28, 2001, was another wake-up call. Weather reports that formerly included temperatures from SeaTac now report the wind speeds on the increasingly fragile SR-520 bridge.
The timing is perhaps fortuitous. The teetering stack of increasing congestion, rising fuel prices and the paradoxical factor of huge SUVs and 53-foot-long commercial trucks have brought us to the tipping point. The global economic meltdown that began late last year gave urgency to the situation.
We knew it was serious when commuters left their cars behind and crammed onto buses. Ironically, these threats to our treasured mobility have reached critical mass at the same time that major transportation projects in the works for years are coming to fruition.
So, how did we get here?
In the late 1970s, housing prices exploded within the urban centers of the Puget Sound region. People moved east and south along the interstate corridors, trading longer commute times for affordable housing.
The interstate highway system in place here, along with our love affair with cars, had people driving long distances for work and play. Gasoline was plentiful and affordable. Cars became second homes with creature comforts.
But it was not to last.
Our awareness of the fragility of our highway system stared us in the face during the stormy night when part of the I-90 bridge sank.
Now, the crisis has become personal as we fill the tank with $3 gas, wait for a half hour to merge 300 feet, or inch our way into the mall parking lot during the holidays. We have long wanted a solution, but we thought it didn’t really have much to do with us. It seemed someone else should pay.
At the polls, we face ballot measures with figures that look like the national debt. How could it possibly cost $100 million to fix a highway, or add a bus lane?
And just what is the difference between Sound Transit and Metro, anyway, and what about WSDOT? Why are we continuing to spend money on roads when driving less is key to slowing climate change? And we are worried. Will I have to pay every time I drive my car? Or worse, will I not get to go where I want, when I want?
Yet, there is hope. Some of those millions have been spent so that you can pay a few bucks in those HOT lanes and get where you are going faster. Getting to Mariners games from the Eastside is a piece of cake on the bus.
That new interchange, express bus route or transit center nearby offers relief in both time and lower gas bills.
And last summer, many proved that they were ready to embrace light rail as 45,000 people rode the Sound Transit Central Link on its inaugural run. Getting to the airport will be easier just in time for the holidays.
We hope to help you sort out what is happening with roads and transit — not only regionally, but in your neighborhood. We will identify the players, talk about the money and what the future holds.
We hope to continue the conversation with you, and our law and policy makers via the Web, our radio partner, KIRO, and of course, in print.
Whether it is getting to work, to the doctor, school or the mountains to enjoy the mountains, we are all in this together.
Mary Grady is editor of the Mercer Island Reporter. She can be reached at
editor@mi-reporter.com.