Science fiction to some – the real future to many

The Central Issaquah Plan demands of its architects equal parts practicality and imagination; an ability to understand the limitations of the land, the economy, and the population, but also to be flexible enough to allow for a future that many of us will never see.

The purpose of the Central Issaquah Plan (CIP) is not to decide what this city will look like in 5 or 10 years, but to define the guidelines of what it should look like in 20 to 50 years. As with all long range planning, it demands of its architects equal parts practicality and imagination; an ability to understand the limitations of the land, the economy, and the population, but also to be flexible enough to allow for a future that many of us will never see.

Many components of the CIP, as drafted by an eclectic citizens advisory taskforce, are simple enough development concepts, such as the creation of a number of mixed-use, self-sufficient neighborhoods, walkable streets and concentrated retail centers.

But there are others that look out into less chartered waters the advisory task force hopes will define Issaquah as a place that embraces modern, progressive concepts to solve some of the problems that continue to plague cities large and small across the nation.

One of these is traffic. With the majority of motorists demonstrating an unwillingness to change existing travel behavior in spite of lengthy delays and congestion, city planners are being asked to come up with a mixture of new road regulations and more attractive transportation options to get people out of the habit of single-occupant vehicle trips.

A feature of the CIP citizen advisory task force’s recently completed draft presentation includes the designation of existing streets, such as Mall Street and the network of streets around it, as pedestrian priority sections, as well as the addition of a vehicle and pedestrian bridge over Interstate 90, possibly connecting 12th Avenue NW with Costco and North Issaquah.

Certain to raise eyebrows is the advisory’s task force recommendation that the city consider the construction of a Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) system around the valley floor.

Though there are many forms, such as Urban Light Transit (ULTra), PRT is best described as small passenger pods, of 6 – 8 people, connected to a looping network of guide-ways. Without drivers or operators, the pods wait at station points along the network, and travel on-demand, rather than by a timetable, to other station points.

The forerunner of the modern PRT was built at the University of West Virginia in Morgantown 35 years ago, and which for the last three decades has reliably connected the university’s campuses with the downtown area. There are similar PRT systems in Detroit, Mich.; Irving, Texas; Jacksonville, Fla.; and Miami, Fla.

Last month Heathrow Airport in London began operation of the world’s first modern PRT system, automated people movers to carry passengers between terminals. Following the success of this groundbreaking project, similar PRT systems are being designed for cities in Asia and Europe.

But according to citizens advisory task force chair Joe Forkner, the fact that PRT is being developed primarily in dense metropolitan centers does not make it impractical for a city the size of Issaquah.

“The unique thing about PRT is that it is so scalable,” Forkner told members of the City of Issaquah Major Planning and Growth Committee (MPGC) at their meeting last week. “You can do it at ground level, above ground level, or a mixture.”

Forkner was conscious of the fact that although councilors and city planners were looking for an innovative traffic solution, they may see PRT as being something for the Jetson’s rather than the people of Issaquah in 2020.

“I understand that this is science fiction to a lot of people,” Forkner told the MPGC, which is made up of councilors Maureen McCarry, Fred Butler and John Traeger. “But the more I looked into it, the more I realized, it’s not only possible, it’s viable.”

According to the advisory task force’s draft presentation, a possible PRT route would include loops from the Issaquah Transit Center, along Newport Way and then Juniper Street toward Gilman Village, and from Maple Street NW and 12th Avenue NW, across the proposed over-crossing to Pickering Place, and possibly on to East Lake Sammamish Parkway. These routes reflect and compliment CIP recommendations for development in these areas, which promote higher densities in some sites, and a number of mixed-use and residential neighborhoods.

According to the draft presentation, PRT combines the desirable aspects of a private car, notably private travel at any desired time, with the social advantages of public transport, such as a lack of congestion or parking issues. But, like any new technology, there is reticence among cities to be the first to adopt a largely untried system, and without construction precedents it is difficult to predict costs.

“I looked at this and I saw dollar signs, lots of them,” Butler said of the PRT plan.

The advisory task, conscious of the sizable capital investment, has suggested a multi-phased roll out of a complete PRT system, with one loop constructed in the next 5 – 10 years, to be followed by additional loops. The PRT would connect with existing bus services, and the trolley route between downtown Issaquah and Gilman Village which should be in operation by next year.

“This is a good example of the chicken and the egg thing, with planning,” Forkner said. “Do you build the infrastructure to attract the density, or do you follow the density. This plan contains some of the things the city should be doing to attract the kind of density that would make it a regional player, in terms of housing and commerce. There is no reason why it can’t happen.”

Forkner added that the plan was not intended to replace motor vehicles entirely, but to give residents another option. Early on in the advisory task force’s discussions, a consensus emerged that the Issaquah of the future should have an extensive local transit system that connected with regional transit.

“(Transportation consultant) Torsten Lineau tells us light rail will be in Issaquah by 2030,” Forkner said. “We are telling him it could be 2015.”

Beyond the current Sound Transit 2 project to extend light rail from Seattle to Bellevue and Redmond on the Eastside, as well as the University District and Northgate, Issaquah is one of a number of cities in line for a next phase of light rail extensions.

Last year Butler, who is also the vice-Chair of the Sound Transit Board of Directors, told The Reporter that Sound Transit 2, approved by voters in 2008, included $3 million to study high capacity transit (HCT) options on I-90 that would look at potential routes and stations, and that Issaquah was a part of that planning study.

He said that beyond Issaquah, areas like North Bend and Snoqualmie Ridge could be on the light rail horizon, given their readiness for growth.

“You can’t build enough roads to satisfy the 1.2 million people who are expected to move to the Puget Sound area between now and 2025,” he said. “It just cannot be done. People are going to need other options.”

For more information about the work of the CIP advisory task force, visit and click on Central Issaquah Plan under Web Links.