Summer is road improvement season throughout the state, a time when transportation departments take advantage of the sunny weather and travelers grumble at the inconvenience of lane closures.
Summer is also a time when bicycle and pedestrian traffic increases around the area, and while many residents embrace non-motorized travel for sport, it has yet to replace the automobile for non-recreational transportation. Some of this hesitancy to give up the car keys may be due to the lack of safe, easy routes for walkers and bicyclists to get from one side of town to the other.
The City of Issaquah and the Washington State Department of Transportation hope a new construction project, scheduled to start this week, will resolve some of these connectivity issues.
The $4.4 million State Route 900 (SR 900) regional trail project, funded by grants and a partnership with Sound Transit, will modify the existing crosswalk at the off-ramp from eastbound I-90, enhance the current bridge over the highway, and add a pedestrian and bicycle crossing over the westbound I-90 on-ramp.
While it is a stand alone project, not related to other road construction projects in the area, the SR 900 trail improvements do adhere to the Complete Street Ordinance passed by the city February 2008, which mandated that pedestrian and bicycle facilities should be incorporated into the planning and construction of transportation programs.
SR-900 over I-90 used to include a wide shoulder that provided safe passage for bicyclists, but this was replaced a few years ago with a dedicated HOV lane.
The project addresses pedestrian and cyclist safety concerns of in a couple of ways. First, it changes the structure of the crossing at the I-90 eastbound off-ramp. By enlarging the traffic island and straightening the crosswalk, engineers hope to keep exiting drivers from ignoring walkers and bikers as they turn right.
Second, the project will separate motorized and non-motorized traffic by creating a free-standing structure over the westbound on-ramp and by developing a 12-foot landscape buffer.
Another goal to provide a missing link in the regional trail system received enthusiastic support from Issaquah Alps Trails Club and Mountains to Sound Greenway. But not everyone is sold on the idea that this project will solve the connectivity problem in Issaquah.
"It will make the crossing of I-90 safer and more convenient for me," said Steve Smith, who works in Issaquah and commutes via bus and bike, "but it will not improve my commute."
As he sees it, the people who work at the city's major employers located on the north side of I-90 still have to use their cars to get to the restaurants on the south side. The seemingly maze-like pathways that workers are required to navigate in search of lunch make giving up their cars a less-than-palatable option.
Smith believes that a multi-use bridge crossing over the interstate midway between the SR 900 and Front Street exits would reduce car traffic by allowing people to walk from their offices to Gilman businesses or from a Gilman restaurant to the movie theaters at Pickering Place.
From the city's point of view, building a new bridge midway along Gilman Blvd. would be cost prohibitive.
"We wouldn't be building on an existing structure," said SR 900 Regional Trail Project Manager Rory Cameron. "It would be completely new construction with new environmental impacts and additional costs." And from the beginning, the goal of the SR 900 overcrossing project was to connect up the existing trails.
Another project the city is working on that it hopes will add to south/north connectivity is the I-90 undercrossing near the Post Office along Gilman Boulevard. By keeping the existing multi-use trail and constructing a new two-lane road along side of it, the city's aim is to add a third route to move between north and south Issaquah, and to reduce congestion at the existing I-90 access points.
Because the undercrossing project doesn't encourage more foot or bike traffic, yet it adds another road for car traffic, Smith doesn't see it as a major improvement.
"The trail's already there," he said, "and to be honest, it's nicer now without car traffic."
Issaquah's Jeff Youngstrom, founder of transportation nonprofit Getting Around Issaquah Together (GAIT), told The Reporter the SR-900 crossing would undeniably make the route more convenient and safer for pedestrians, but agreed with Smith in saying it would do nothing to improve connectivity between North and South Issaquah.
"Looking at a map shows that a connector between the end of Maple Street on Gilman and Lake Drive at Pickering Place could reduce travel distances between those two commercial centers by as much as four times," he said.
Costco Headquarters to Round Table Pizza, exactly the kind of trip Smith referred to, is about 1.6 miles using existing bike and pedestrian routes. It would be reduced to less than half a mile with a connection half way along Gilman.
"As for the undercrossing that's currently under construction, while it will include sidewalks, it does very little to improve bike and pedestrian connectivity over what is already available in that corridor via the East Lake Sammamish Trail. It may improve visibility of the existing connection to Pickering Place via the Pickering Trail which crosses the new road."
At the Issaquah City Council meeting on Monday, July 19, the development of the I-90 underpass continued with the unanimous passing of two agenda bills. AB 6153 authorized the expenditure of $530,935 and executed a change order to phase 4A of the project, which involves the intersection of SE 62nd Street and 221st Place SE. Phase 4A has now been scaled back and does not allow for construction of curbs, gutters and sidewalks. Once the city receives the appropriate right-of-way, curbs, gutters and sidewalks will be added.
The council also approved AB 6194, which gave an easement to Puget Sound Energy allowing them to install electrical service for street lights and the new traffic signal.
The enhancements to SR 900 regional trail are expected to be completed in spring 2011, with construction on the I-90 underpass continuing through the end of this year. There will be some disruption of traffic with both projects. Drivers can expect narrower driving lanes and the temporary closure of the HOV lane near the SR 900 project.
Contact Issaquah Reporter Reporter Staci Barsness at firstname.lastname@example.org or 425-391-0363, ext. 5052.