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Friday, September 8, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Park Plan Tackles `Mercer Mess'

Backers of the Seattle Commons ballot measure promise that it will bring a "real solution to the `Mercer Mess.' "

No more morning backups trying to get from Seattle Center to Interstate 5. No more maneuvering along the shores of Lake Union to get to Queen Anne and Ballard.

But the $111 million Commons levy wouldn't pay for fixing Mercer. That money - an estimated $93.8 million - would have to be found elsewhere.

And state officials say they can't afford to fix one of the key reasons for the traffic jams - that the proposed Mercer changes don't address the problem of an overloaded and aging Interstate 5 freeway.

The Mercer Street plan is a linchpin for the proposed redevelopment of the South Lake Union area and construction of a 61-acre Commons park.

Just as notably, it's the city's first definitive attempt in 30 years to fix the traffic snarl. Dozens of earlier plans - ranging from tunneling Mercer entirely to elevating it as a viaduct skirting the south end of the lake - went nowhere.

The fix now proposed: Change Mercer from a four-lane, one-way street into a six-lane, two-way thoroughfare that would give motorists a clear shot between Seattle Center and the freeway. Mercer would be lowered and partially tunneled through the new park.

Two of the most dangerous and nerve-wracking intersections in the city - Mercer and Fairview, and Mercer and Westlake - would be eliminated, smoothing the flow of traffic.

Motorists would no longer have to drive over to Valley Street to get to Seattle Center or Queen Anne Hill. Instead, the freeway ramp would spill them right onto Mercer.

The city's environmental impact statement says the new design would save motorists six minutes in travel time between the freeway and the Seattle Center.

It also would separate the drone of 90,000 passing cars from a new, pedestrian-oriented Commons neighborhood and let people stroll through the park to the waterfront without having to cross several lanes of traffic.

Officials at the state Department of Transportation agree the proposal would help unclog Mercer. But they say motorists still would find themselves lining up at the I-5 freeway entrances - just as they do now - because the freeway's ability to accept cars would remain the same.

Part of the problem lies in the so-called "Mercer weave" - motorists weaving their way from the onramp across I-5 to the Highway 520 floating bridge, and from the 520 bridge to the Mercer offramp.

That weave, state officials say, remains one of the most dangerous problems on Washington freeways and contributes to the lines of waiting cars on Mercer.

"Regardless of what you do along Mercer, you still have constraints as to how much traffic Interstate 5 can handle at any one time," said Bob Aye, supervisor for the Puget Sound region of the Department of Transportation (DOT).

State officials say they don't have the money to address the problem.

Other proposed traffic changes would give motorists new, more direct connections to Queen Anne Hill. There would be a Roy Street underpass at Aurora, with wide bike lanes and sidewalks. Harrison Street, which would cut across the park, would cross over Aurora and connect to Broad Street.

City traffic planners say the changes would dramatically ease congestion in the area by separating local traffic from motorists trying to cross town and reach the freeway.

Eliminating the Mercer and Fairview intersection alone, said senior traffic planner Joan Rosenstock, would be a major step toward shortening today's nearly mile-long eastbound backups on Mercer.

Mercer and other nearby streets would handle about 10 percent more traffic by 2010 and would still allow people to travel slightly faster than today's average speed (26 mph), the city's environmental impact report says.

The biggest question mark about any major changes involves money.

The $93.8 million price tag is high enough that no single government agency could pay for it all. That means changes probably would have to be phased in over several years, says Craig Stone, a transportation planning supervisor for DOT.

City engineers and traffic planners have drawn up a contingency plan for a new park and neighborhood, and the same old Mercer, just in case construction money doesn't come through. Under this fallback plan, Mercer would not be tunneled at the park and there would be no pedestrian bridges across Valley Street.

City leaders and the Committee for the Seattle Commons, a nonprofit group, plan to lobby state and federal governments for the additional money. Federal officials already have pledged $1.5 million for a more detailed study.

State officials in Olympia say extra money from the state would probably have to be approved by the Legislature.

Others think Seattle would have a tough time persuading the new Republican Congress to give it the money, although Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., says he'll take the lead in pushing for federal funding.

The city probably would apply to the Puget Sound Regional Council, which doles out federal dollars to cities and counties for local street projects. But the council, which covers four counties, would be hard-pressed to come up with big chunks of money, Stone said.

City officials and Commons supporters, nonetheless, have faith in the project's success.

In four years, the Committee for the Seattle Commons accomplished what others have been unable to do in 30 - propose a solution to the "Mercer Mess" that the City Council could agree on.

Much of that success, some say, was due to citizen pressure for a solution. Mayor Norm Rice and former governor and U.S. Sen. Dan Evans also have been strong proponents of the Commons project. Their continued involvement - if backed with voter approval of a down payment for the area - would surely strengthen the city's lobbying efforts in Olympia and Washington, D.C.

"It's a huge amount of money," said DOT official Denny Ingham, keeper of some of the federal dollars. "But if the public really believes in something and really gets behind it, the politicians will get behind it and something will get done."

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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