Issaquah Mayor Fred Butler held a regional transportation summit last year to create a coalition and find solutions to Eastside traffic. Was it enough to get local leaders moving on the issue?

Most mayors will tell you their cities are special, and Issaquah Mayor Fred Butler is no exception. But the city is exceptional for one reason you might not expect.

“Issaquah is in a unique position,” said Butler. “We are surrounded by three mountains: Cougar Mountain, Squak Mountain, and Tiger Mountain. There is the Issaquah Highlands, which is on a plateau. There is Lake Sammamish. And then we have a river that runs right through the middle of our city, and it’s called Interstate 90.”

The cause of traffic congestion in Issaquah isn’t complicated. In the morning, residents of Covington, Maple Valley, and other areas of South King County depart State Route 18 at Issaquah-Hobart Road Southeast and drive north toward Interstate 90, clogging two downtown Issaquah arterials — Front Street and Newport Way Northwest. The process reverses and repeats during the evening commute.

What’s more, Issaquah’s population of 33,000 expands and contracts every day, with about 14,000 residents leaving the city to commute to work, according to city officials, and 20,600 people commuting into the city to work at Costco, Microsoft, and other local employers (about 1,500 residents both live and work in Issaquah).

What is complicated, however, is finding a solution.

To that end, Butler invited the mayors of neighboring cities — Bellevue, Covington, Maple Valley, Mercer Island, Newcastle, North Bend, Renton, Sammamish, and Snoqualmie — and representatives of King County Metro, Sound Transit, WSDOT, King County government, and other organizations with local transportation interests to convene a transportation summit last November to air their traffic concerns and brainstorm solutions.

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Did the effort work? We met Butler in his office at Issaquah City Hall to find out.

425 BUSINESS: What was the Reason for the regional transportation summit?

Butler: There was a tremendous amount of frustration about pass-through traffic in Issaquah and the impacts that was having on our community. We have a lot of people driving through our community who are just as frustrated as we are. There are not that many choices for them. I hosted the regional transportation summit out of a certain amount of frustration and because I began to realize that our citizens were impacted not by our citizens themselves driving around our streets, but because of pressures from other neighboring communities that were contributing to the problem. I wondered, “What do other mayors think about this? What are their challenges?”

Everyone I invited came to the transportation summit. I was pleasantly surprised but a little bit nervous because here is Issaquah, a relatively small community, convening a pretty powerful group to talk about an issue that I know affects just about every city and every citizen in the Puget Sound region — it was eye-opening. Issaquah was not alone. Everyone was in the same boat. Everyone wanted to be at the table. There were 150 people in the audience. It was powerful to hear from all of the mayors around the table. There was a fair amount of emotion.

425B: What conclusions did you come to? 

Butler: That no single city in our area is isolated and unaffected by any other city. People will continue to move between communities to access jobs, education, recreation, schools, entertainment — you name it. If that is really the case, then, as a region, we’ve got to work together to ensure that our transportation system reflects the reality of our interconnectedness. That’s a pretty simple statement.

Then I got to wondering, “How did we get to where we are?” I came to the conclusion it’s not any one thing — but it’s just the lack of a regional focus on transportation. We took our eye off the ball. All of this growth was coming, and we did individual projects within our communities or in certain cities or in certain segments, but we weren’t addressing the whole thing. There was an initiative many years ago; it was called the Regional Transportation Improvement District, and it went before our voters two times. Once, as simply a roads package. Then the Legislature said we want roads and transit. Both of those failed at the ballot. There was a lack of political will and the inability to focus regionally.

The Legislature funded WSDOT’s huge Moving Washington package. But they are scattered all over the state. The projects the Puget Sound region got are sort of band-aids. They are individual projects.

425B: What action items came out of that transportation summit?

Butler: There was a commitment to lobby the Legislature and say, “You’ve got to get moving. We can’t wait.” We want a coordinated legislative agenda. Maybe it’s a regional transportation package. Maybe it’s a large Transportation Benefit District. In March, technical staff from every Eastside city got together and kicked off a process that is going to look at a regional arterial system. Frankly, there are no short-term solutions. The solutions we are talking about are midterm and long-term solutions. But if we can put the structure and the mindset in place to really say we are going to fix it to the best of our ability as quickly as we can, well, that’s a step in the right direction.

In my view, people want options. What options do our citizens have in Issaquah? We’ve got single-occupancy vehicle, HOV, King County Metro’s Vanpool program, and Sound Transit Route 554. The Route 554 ridership grows by leaps and bounds every quarter. But that’s all we’ve really got. I take the bus to Seattle whenever I can. I walk right out the front door of City Hall, and I take the bus. People are looking for options. They are looking for alternative means to motorized vehicles.

Another good thing coming out of it is the awareness that we are not alone, and I believe there is a feeling and an understanding that we have got to work together regionally. It’s not hard to get people together. When people get together, the end product is a lot better than what I can do just sitting here in the middle of Issaquah, wringing my hands over transportation.

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