When citizens gather to engage government employees, the results can be illuminating. Public town halls, “listening tours” and forums are ideal showcases for – as one inspiring public servant put it – “people caring loudly.” Otherwise pleasant individuals unleash years of pent-up frustration over narrow issues. Participants make demands that range from the mundane to fundamental restructurings of American society and law. Grandstanding local weirdos get a live audience. On occasion, people raise reasonable ideas and concerns. It’s democracy in action.
But it’s not often that a public meeting incorporates the subjects of Civil War-era slavery, self-driving cars, and how mass transit is a key part of the pollution problem. That’s what representatives of Sound Transit faced last Thursday at an open-mic session on Mercer Island attended by roughly 200 citizens, Washington Department of Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson, Bellevue Mayor Claudia Balducci, and a range of Mercer Island politicians.
Like their island-dwelling brethren on Bainbridge or Vashon, many Mercer Islanders want to separate themselves from Seattle and Bellevue’s clamor. Unlike these other island residents, however, they have an easy commute to the cities courtesy of Interstate 90’s bridges. Unfortunately for some island residents, these bridges and related transit infrastructure are also enjoyed by non-residents.
This frustration was the focus at Thursday’s meeting, as Seattle Transit Blog reporter Zach Shaner documented in detail via Twitter and an article published Tuesday. Shaner’s parents lived on the island for a time, and he’s followed its transit-related sentiments for a while. Nonetheless, he told us that he “wasn’t prepared for the breadth of special privileges and exemptions (Mercer Islanders) sought” at the meeting.
For example, many non-residents use the Mercer Island Park and Ride, which the Mercer Island Reporter notes is among the most heavily used in the county. It fills up by 7:30 in the morning most days, which is why Sound Transit proposed to expand it in 2006. The Mercer Island city council voted to keep it smaller.
At the meeting, numerous speakers demanded that Island residents receive special or exclusive access to the Park and Ride.
Speakers also demanded that Island residents be allowed to bypass tolls, have reserved seats on buses, and use carpool lanes on I-90, even when driving alone.
The demands became especially galling when speakers tied them to the crash of a Ride the Ducks vehicle and a tour bus in Seattle, which occurred the day of the meeting. Shaner says two separate doctors – including Mercer Island resident Benjamin Starnes, chief of the Vascular Surgery Division at the University of Washington's Harborview Medical Center – leveraged the incident to demand special transportation privileges.
All of these comments will do nothing to stop the voter-approved light rail station from being built. But they highlighted a sentiment that became clearer when the conversation turned to buses.
Some of the opposition to buses was just nonsensical, as when one attendee told Sound Transit reps they were “making sustainability impossible. Buses will severely degrade our air quality.” But judging from the frequent disparagement of people outside the wealthy island community, a more sour mindset was clearly at play. One speaker implored Sound Transit and other “off-Islanders” to not be “pigeons that just come here, drop your shit, and leave."
At the heart of many comments Thursday night was a belief that some people are more worthy of the county’s resources than others. Shaner reports that scattered speakers openly supported mass transit at the meeting, but estimates 90 percent of the speakers called for special perks not enjoyed by anyone else in the region.
Through its extreme examples, the forum offers a window into more common tendencies that should be called out, especially as the region grows in both size and wealth. Maybe it’s the angst some people show toward affordable housing, unless it’s tucked into the outskirts of neighborhoods and cities. Maybe it’s gripes about “safety concerns,” when the real complaint is about the poor and less fortunate.
The meeting's comments are a reminder that some wouldn't mind a stricter social hierarchy developing in the region. At its best, Puget Sound can be a community in which people are treated with equal respect, and which works to establish a more level playing field. Maybe with time, more people will "care loudly" about this position as well.