Bellevue, Sound Transit down to the wire on light-rail deal
By NAT LEVY
Bellevue Reporter Staff Writer
July 19, 2011 · Updated 3:04 PM
The Bellevue City Council and Sound Transit have just over a week to find agreement on a number of unresolved issues before the regional board makes its final call on East Link light-rail alignment.
The two organizations began public negotiations Monday after several private sessions. Sound Transit board members are expected to make a final decision on where to put the train at its July 28 board meeting.
Sound Transit officials joined the Bellevue City Council at its study session Monday night and presented a number of design modifications to its preferred alternative - a route running up Bellevue Way and 112th Avenue into downtown.
One of them would potentially reduce noise and traffic impacts.
East Link project manager Don Billen briefed the council on a number of possibilities for design changes to the B2M option that focused primarily on elevated, and grade-separated changes that prevent crossings on major streets and eliminate the bells that cause much of the noise pollution associated with the train. To help offset traffic impacts during construction, Billen suggested shifting portions of Bellevue Way more west, adding a third southbound lane. This would make up for the loss of one northbound lane during construction, and give the road more capacity when the project is complete.
A station, potentially at East Main Street, would be installed below ground level with retaining walls to contain noise within the area, as well.
Councilmember Jennifer Robertson was concerned that no public outreach had yet been performed with these proposed alterations. She also wanted to make sure that these new measures would reduce residual noise as well, keeping residents from hearing the trains when they are outside nearby.
"If they want to sleep with their windows open, or go out in their yard, you can't mitigate that."
The negotiations represent a new effort between the two groups to find a deal. The Bellevue council has not voted to change its preferred alternative from a route that runs through the Mercer Slough parallel to Interstate 405 into downtown. But council members have put a new focus on negotiating mitigation of impacts.
While Bellevue has taken a more cooperative tone in recent weeks, signs of long-brewing tensions surfaced as Mayor Don Davidson expressed frustration at the cost of a downtown tunnel. After asking what percentage of taxes Sound Transit receives from Bellevue, Davidson let his frustrations be known.
"There seems to be a lot of tax dollars going out of this community for Sound Transit, and then to come back and ask us for more dollars for the tunnel makes me uncomfortable."
Councilmember Grant Degginger responded by asking "can we get on with it?"
The two bodies have been in non-binding agreement on a tunnel since April 2010 when they agreed to split the cost of the $300 million option roughly in half.
Sound Transit board members last week told staff to prioritize negotiating a tunnel in the coming weeks. Issaquah Councilmember Fred Butler, also a member of the Sound Transit board, said last week that members are unanimous in their desire to make the final alignment call on July 28. But board members don't want to be hung out to dry, with the possibility of an open-ended tunnel agreement leading to greater delay.
"My concern is that if we move forward without an agreement on the tunnel, and there are those on the Bellevue side who want to delay or ask for more mitigation," said Mukilteo Mayor Joe Marine at a Sound Transit committee meeting last week. "Is Bellevue playing nice now because we have to agree on a tunnel, and once we do they are back in the ring?"
Sound Transit board member and Bellevue City Council member Claudia Balducci preached caution on a decision timeline at last Thursday’s meeting, and she repeated that message Monday. The decision is already a year later than originally planned. Balducci liked the direction of the negotiations, and she doesn't want to see an alignment vote kill that momentum.
But with so little time, and such an expensive, project-altering deal still to be negotiated, it's unlikely the agreement will get done prior to July 28, said Sound Transit Director of Planning and Project Development Ric Ilgenfritz.
"Once upon a time, we thought we could enter into an Inter-local Agreement in the same time frame as the board wanted to make an alignment decision," he said. "Circumstances haven't turned out, and the schedule has been moved out."
But, Ilgenfritz said, the decision is only a preliminary one, and nothing is final until the Federal Transit Administration blesses it. That likely won't happen for a few months. As part pf the decision July 28, Sound Transit could include a provision of a deadline for an agreement with Bellevue on a tunnel, before the FTA makes its recommendation, Ilgenfritz said.
Contact Bellevue Reporter Staff Writer Nat Levy at email@example.com or 425-453-4290.