Why it's time to act, finally, on Mercer

The director of Seattle's Department of Transportation makes the case for moving ahead on the Mercer Mess, and how the western portion got redesigned and will be funded.
Crosscut archive image.
The director of Seattle's Department of Transportation makes the case for moving ahead on the Mercer Mess, and how the western portion got redesigned and will be funded.

With traffic problems that have existed since the 1950s, Seattle'ꀙs Mercer Street rightfully deserves its title of the 'ꀜMercer Mess.'ꀝ Anyone who has ever driven through the corridor, which carries over 80,000 vehicles per day, recognizes that efficient traffic flow is almost an afterthought. If you are walking or riding a bike in the neighborhood, you are left with the impression that no one thought of you at all. But with a finalized design, needed property in hand, and most of the funding secured, the city of Seattle is now prepared to address the 'ꀜMercer Mess.'ꀝ

The Mercer East project creates a widened two-way boulevard from Dexter Avenue to I-5 while also reconstructing Valley Street as a smaller, park-oriented road. It builds 32 blocks of new or wider sidewalks, improves transit connections, adds six blocks of multi-use trail and a mile of bike lanes, and eliminates multiple turning points for freight. The project also reconnects South Lake Union to other neighborhoods, eliminates circuitous routes, reduces backups on I-5, and replaces 80- to 115-year old water and electrical utilities, all while better preparing the street network to handle SR-99 bored tunnel connections. These improvements further support Seattle's strategy of creating livable and vibrant neighborhoods, like South Lake Union and Uptown.

Even as it increases capacity by 12 to 14 percent from the I-5 off-ramp at Mercer and accommodates pedestrians, an improved Mercer East will create lower travel times for numerous users. The latest traffic modeling shows westbound traffic from I-5 to the Seattle Center saving up to four minutes in the a.m. peak, with no impacts for eastbound travel times. In the p.m. peak, westbound traffic adds only 52 seconds a trip while eastbound travel times drop by up to three minutes.

While some are fixated solely on travel times, we are not trying to build a Mercer freeway through South Lake Union. That idea was explored and wisely rejected in 1972 when we defeated the Bay Freeway idea. Instead, we want to improve traffic flow as much as possible, better support pedestrians, bicyclists, and mass transit users, create a sense of community through roadway improvements, and reconnect South Lake Union to adjoining neighborhoods.

The cost of improving Mercer from I-5 to Dexter Avenue is estimated at $190.5 million. With $140.5 million in secured funding, including $31.4 million in private sector contributions, the city already has more than 73 percent of the cost covered. Through a recently submitted grant request to the US Department of Transportation, we are seeking stimulus funds to cover the remaining $50 million.

In a cost-effective way, the city of Seattle is proposing to spend only what is needed to fix this glaring transportation problem. There are some who offer 'ꀜalternative'ꀝ proposals, claiming to fix Mercer for pennies on the dollar. These alternative solutions typically lack detail and have price tags dusty with age. While those Mercer proposals are based on wishful thinking, this project'ꀙs design, analysis, and funding are based on fact and current estimates.

No Bridging the Gap (BTG) levy dollars that would pay for sidewalks or bike lanes elsewhere in the city are being diverted to Mercer. The City Council has already approved bonding revenue from the BTG package'ꀙs parking tax to build Mercer East, a tax that was always intended to help fund large projects. And you don'ꀙt have to take my word that levy dollars are safe. Ask the Seattle residents who make up the BTG Levy Oversight Committee and ensure that BTG dollars are used appropriately.

A separate project known as Mercer West seeks to further improve the corridor through work from Dexter to Elliott avenues. Given Mercer'ꀙs critical east/west path, this concept has been part of community discussions since 2004 and was included in stakeholder discussions on replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct (AWV). Originally Mercer West was envisioned by SDOT as a two-way road on existing right-of-way. However, the 31-member Mercer Corridor Stakeholder Committee (including the Queen Anne Chamber of Commerce, the Cascade Bicycle Club, the Port of Seattle, and the Manufacturing Industrial Council) encouraged the city to design a full six-lane roadway with improved bicycle and pedestrian facilities. It will widen the Mercer underpass at Aurora Avenue to a six-lane street, and add broader sidewalks and a new bicycle pathway. This project also converts Roy Street to a two-way road with bike lanes, builds a new 6th Avenue connection between Harrison and Mercer streets, and closes Broad Street between 5th and 9th avenues N.

When combined with the state'ꀙs tunnel work that will also reconnect John, Thomas, and Harrison streets across Aurora, we can reestablish the entire street grid from lower Queen Anne to South Lake Union, creating even greater east/west capacity and further improving eastbound and westbound travel times. Estimated to cost $100 million, the bulk of the Mercer West expense covers expanding Mercer under Aurora. As we are only at 5 percent design with construction several years away, the city will create a funding plan for Mercer West as we assemble our AWV replacement financing. A portion of the money the city has committed to spending as the viaduct is replaced will go toward Mercer West.

For decades Seattle residents have voiced frustrations about Mercer and Seattle elected officials have debated fixes. The city of Seattle is now poised to finally address the 'ꀜMercer Mess.'ꀝ We have talked with residents and businesses, finalized design work, acquired right-of-way, received multiple 8-1 City Council votes of approval, and already secured most of the funding. Delaying the Mercer East project means the loss of a significant opportunity as well as nearly $90 million in federal and private funds that can'ꀙt be used elsewhere — leaving roadway users decades more time with the 'ꀜMercer Mess.'ꀝ

It is time to act.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors