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Monday, March 5, 1990 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`Mercer Mess': City Trying Again

For three decades, people who live, work or travel south of Lake Union between the Seattle Center and Interstate 5 have marveled at the futile search for a solution to the so-called Mercer Mess.

Fifty-eight studies during the past 30 years have failed to produce a remedy to the area's traffic congestion that five City Council members could agree on.

But failure hasn't kept the council from trying. Now, with three new members and the prospect of an additional $12 million a year from the state gas tax increase, the council seems ready to try again, with an Engineering Department review of the situation tomorrow morning. Until further notice, though, the skepticism will probably remain as thick as the traffic.

``It's frustrating,'' says Mike Foley, whose family owns the McKay automobile dealerships at Mercer Street and Westlake Avenue North and who has been watching the process for the past 13 years.

``It's incredible. I bet they've spent $5 million in staff time and studies, and nothing's been done.''

There have been proposals to bury the traffic in a tunnel and elevate it on a viaduct that would skirt the south end of the lake. A year ago, former Mayor Charles Royer proposed shifting the burden of traffic to a proposed Broad Street throughway that would be dug out like a big ditch.

In all, there have been 10 firm proposals, with price tags - a little out of date by now - ranging from a mere $42 million, to reroute Fairview Avenue over Mercer Street, to well over $100 million to put the whole problem out of sight and into a tunnel.

To date, every idea has been rejected, for reasons as varied as

there are council members and mayors who have tried to address the problem.

Some thought the money would be better spent on low-income housing and better police protection. Some agreed with property owners like Foley, who thinks there's not much of a problem and that things could be improved simply by fixing the Fairview-Mercer intersection and better coordinating traffic signals.

Even when council members agreed on the importance of the problem, they agreed on little else.

Finding a solution wasn't made any easier by a set of more than 50 goals the council adopted through the years as it tried to ease everyone's fears. Besides easing traffic, the Mercer solution must:

-- Not become a barrier between downtown Seattle and Lake Union.

-- Accommodate any future mass transit system.

-- Not interfere with the existing rail lines that serve businesses south of the lake.

-- Not interfere with businesses in the area, or hinder future residential development.

-- Not hinder access to the park for which clearing recently started at the southwest edge of the lake.

-- Improve the aesthetics of the area.

-- Not encourage additional traffic in the Mercer corridor and not adversely affect Queen Anne Hill.

That's a lot to ask of any roadway, and some of the goals conflict with one another. Among other things, city transportation planners say it's difficult to imagine correcting the Mercer problem without generating additional traffic.

Property and business owners, too, are divided in what they want to see done. Some businesses south of the lake have leased property from the city on a month-to-month basis since the early 1970s, when voters shot down the Bay Freeway plan, for which the city had already acquired right of way.

Foley worries that any change will hurt existing businesses. ``We're ignored,'' he says. ``We're just a place to bulldoze.''

The nature of the problem may be that the Mercer Mess has attracted too much interest.

``There have been so many ideas floating around, and so many ramifications to each of them,'' says Councilman George Benson, chairman of the Transportation Committee. ``There's just been no consensus, which led us to the stalemate we find ourselves in.''

Tomorrow morning, the Transportation Committee will get an update of the problem and its potential solutions.

City engineers and planners say they want to educate new council members and make the council aware of how rapidly development is occurring south and east of the lake, where it could aggravate existing congestion.

Though there's no reason to think a solution will be any easier to find, Benson seems determined to settle the issue during his two years as the committee's chairman.

``When I sink my teeth into something, I'm going to do it,'' he says. ``I guarantee you, within two years we'll have a plan.''

Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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