End near for East Lake Sammamish Parkway improvements

December 27, 2013

By Ari Cetron

Dec. 27, 11:14 a.m.

On Dec. 3, the slow march toward ending potential improvements to the East Lake Sammamish Parkway took another step.

The Sammamish City Council voted unanimously to adopt a new set of regulations which say the city can realize a “capacity benefit” for a road because of a regional trail running parallel to the road.

Since the East Lake Sammamish Trail runs parallel to the parkway, the road can enjoy that benefit.

Laura Philpot, the city’s public works director, explained the system in a later interview. Roads like the parkway have a certain amount of traffic they can handle. If they city were to add something like a bike lane or sidewalk along the side of the road, the capacity for the road itself would also go up.

Philpot explained that’s largely a safety issue. Without sidewalks, people can walk along some low-traffic roads and still feel safe, but as volumes increase, sidewalks have to be added in order to preserve that feeling.

So, even though the road cannot physically accommodate more vehicles, the city will tolerate more traffic on the road, because there are safe options for people who are not in cars.

Philpot said this change allows the city to count the parkway as if it were such an adjacent sidewalk or bike lane.

In the meeting, she characterized the change to be recognizing the trail as an “urban amenity,” meaning the city would not have to make any such improvements.

“It’s not saying we’re going to shift traffic. It’s saying we don’t need to add urban amenities because the trail already is,” Philpot said.

The change could wind up being significant to new development in Sammamish. Under state law, cities can only permit new construction if they have sufficient public services to accommodate the new residents. It’s up to municipalities to determine what levels are adequate.

If the city does not have either the infrastructure, or a plan to build it, development must come to a halt until the improvements are made.

The parkway, with its high traffic volumes and limited cost-effective options for relieving them, had been a thorn in the city’s side.

Since this change means the city will tolerate more traffic on the parkway, it isn’t likely to run into problems with those volume levels soon.

Now, the council will have the option of removing planned improvement to the parkway from the city’s long-term plans.

As far back as 2008, when the council approved a major renovation of the road, the plan had countless detractors.

They pointed to the estimated $45 million price tag and questioned if the city would get any substantial traffic relief for the money.

The city completed the first phase of the project in 2010 for about $10.3 million, making changes to the intersection of the parkway and Inglewood Hill Road. The city also got some federal stimulus money to extend improvements northward from the intersection.

In 2011, the council moved the project back in its transportation improvement plan, essentially deferring it indefinitely.

At the time, Councilwoman Nancy Whitten said she and several other members of the council wanted to see the project killed, not just deferred indefinitely.

In 2011 and 2012, city staff countered that Sammamish’s own road policies require it to keep the project on the docket.

The solution, which the council just considered, was to essentially rewrite some of the rules. The city’s Planning Commission began a study of several options earlier this year. It presented its findings to the council Nov. 5.

The commission rejected other options, such as re-writing traffic standards to say the city considered the higher traffic volume acceptable.

The commission also considered plans to add left-turn lanes along the parkway to allow more free-flowing traffic.

However, Planning Commission Chairman Mike Luxenberg noted that most of the access points are private driveways – in some cases for only a single house – so the impact of adding the turn lanes would be minimal.

Instead, the commission unanimously decided to consider a trail as providing capacity equal to moving 580 vehicles per foot of trail width. Using this standard, the 12-foot-wide East Lake Sammamish trail would count as having 6,960 commuters per day. That extra capacity could be counted against the East Lake Sammamish Parkway, as Philpot explained.

Now that the council has approved considering the trail to add a “capacity benefit,” it is free to remove the parkway from future road improvement plans.

The council typically updates the transportation plan annually. It last did so June 17. However, the council is free to update the plan an additional time if it wishes.

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