SEATTLE — The Washington Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the state can go ahead with plans to build light-rail tracks on the Interstate 90 bridge over Lake Washington, citing agreements dating back to the 1970s that gave priority to public transit on the bridge.
The justices agreed with Kittitas County Superior Court Judge Michael Cooper’s grant of summary judgment that an agreement between the Washington Department of Transportation and Sound Transit does not violate the state constitution.
The lawsuit and appeal were brought by plaintiffs including Bellevue developer Kemper Freeman Jr., who is known for building the Bellevue Square Mall. They argued that the state was misusing highway dollars by giving freeway lanes over to mass transit.
In their appeal of the lower court ruling, they offer as evidence a 1944 voters pamphlet that characterizes Article II, Section 40 of the state constitution as saying highways are strictly for motor vehicle use because they are built and maintained using motor vehicle license fees, fuel taxes and other revenue intended for highway purposes.
The state argued and the court agreed that government agreements concerning I-90 before the bridge was even built set aside lanes for transit. The bridge connects Seattle, Mercer Island and Bellevue.
The justices voted 7-2 in favor of allowing light rail to be built on the bridge. The majority opinion by Chief Justice Barbara A. Madsen also points out that the state is leasing the lanes to Sound Transit in exchange for money to build more lanes for cars.
Voters approved the Sound Transit light-rail route to Seattle’s eastern suburbs as part of a 2008 ballot measure.
Sound Transit is scheduled to begin construction on new high-occupancy vehicle lanes on the bridge in 2015. It plans to transform existing lanes into light rail starting in 2016. After the project is completed, the bridge will have 24-hour HOV lanes in both directions, as well as light rail tracks.
“We’re excited to be moving forward,” said Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick after the ruling was posted on the Supreme Court website.
Freeman said he agreed almost entirely with the dissenting opinion, written by Justice James M. Johnson, calling the majority opinion “preposterous.”
Both Johnson and Freeman argue that the Supreme Court is eroding the 18th Amendment to the Washington Constitution, which prevents the diversion of the gas tax, vehicle registration and related funds for non-highway uses.
Freeman said there’s a good reason why most states have a provision like this in their constitution.
Despite the Supreme Court decision, Freeman has not changed his opinion that the best kind of mass transit uses buses, not trains, because bus rapid transit carries more people, is cheaper to build and can be set up faster.