Residents irked over potential design changes to light-rail route
By NAT LEVY
Bellevue Reporter Staff Writer
October 10, 2011 · Updated 1:48 PM
Arjun Sirohi takes in a cool fall morning on his second-story deck. A lush, green backyard flanked with a line of trees and hedges protects the home from the noises emanating from the nearby street.
Situated just off 112th Avenue, one of the main thoroughfares into downtown, Sirohi's home is close to the action. A quick walk takes him into Bellevue's bustling downtown where he works as a software engineer. His day done, Sirohi can return to his dwelling.
But he can't help but look at the orange line drawn midway through his backyard – the place, he says, where Sound Transit may locate tracks for its East Link light-rail trains.
As currently envisioned, the train is proposed to head north into downtown on the east side of 112th Avenue before crossing at Southeast Sixth. But two design changes considered by the council would take the train west sooner – a route that could impact the locals, but may also take some of the intersection crossings and noise problems out of the equation.
Sirohi said he feels "terrible, but not hopeless," about the prospect of a train coming into his backyard.
These options could put the train less than 20 feet from his back door. Sirohi cited Sound Transit's data saying that it would intrude 21 feet into his property line, leaving only 18 feet between the train and his home. Sound Transit officials said they won't know all the details until they delve into the final design process that will occur over the next three years.
One of the options has the train at street level into the downtown section, where it will go into a proposed tunnel. The other option includes an approximately 40-foot flyover that would eliminate street crossings, and add an underground trench.
Proponents of the route say that by moving it to the west side earlier, noise is eliminated - by decreasing the number of crossings there are fewer bells to be heard - and the roads will be safer because of less interaction between cars and trains.
"By putting it on the west side you take these intersections out of play," said Bellevue Club President Bill Thurston, one of the main proponents of a west-running alignment. "You're eliminating the bells and whistles, and for safety you are removing any type of crash."
Thurston believes the street-level route would be the more effective of the two because it could be tucked into the hillside, creating a natural noise and visual barrier for residents on that side of the road.
Sirohi's neighbor to the north, Susan Ilvanakis could be even closer to the train. Her biggest fear in the process is choosing the flyover. She too cited a distance of about 20 feet distance between her home and a train. Ilvanakis imagines a worst case scenario where a towering train would loom over her home.
"That's a four-story structure over a single-story home," she said."
Sirohi and Ilvanakis posed many questions about these new options to Sound Transit in private meetings earlier this month. They said they did not get answers to their questions about ground conditions and impacts to nearby properties.
Sound Transit officials said there would certainly be impacts to the properties, but the extent of the disruption, and whether or not the properties would need to be bought out could not be determined until later in the process.
Residents are unnerved by the urgency of downtown tunnel negotiations, combined with the many unknowns present in the new design options. Sound Transit and Bellevue are continuing to negotiate on the route, and funding a downtown tunnel in hopes of reaching a Memorandum of Understanding by Oct. 25. That document will point to a preferred option of either the original or one of the two new options, said Sound Transit spokesman Bruce Gray.
After this deadline passes, Sound Transit will go into final design, which will continue through 2015. This is when everyone will get the full data and scenarios they seek. Should home acquisitions prove too expensive, or impacts too great, Gray said, the Sound Transit board can alter the route when it makes its final decision in late 2012 or early 2013. Still, Sound Transit officials said they understand the concern on the part of residents.
"I know it can be frustrating for property owners just being able to look at lines on a map," said Gray.
Gray said more information will be known Oct. 13, when staff presents new technical analysis to Sound Transit's capital committee.
Gray maintained that these options are being examined because the Bellevue council requested them. It has only been a few weeks since these options came to light.
Both Ilvanakis and Sirohi said they were unsure about whether they would agree to a buyout of the properties should one of the two new options be chosen. Sirohi felt it would be poor logic to consent to a buyout upfront, and then be forced to wait on terms. He said he doesn't want to be stuck not knowing whether or not he will need to move.
Gray said Sound Transit buys property at market value, and the estimation of how many homes could be needed won't come until later. He could not put an exact time frame on when the buyouts would occur.
For Ilvanakis, waiting is a worst-case scenario. She is torn between attempting to move, or go forward with an expansion of the house. She would rather know her fate now then be stuck in this purgatory.
"I feel like a scarlet letter has been placed on our home, and we can't do anything," she said. "We can't make improvements, and we can't sell until we know what is going to happen."Contact Bellevue Reporter Staff Writer Nat Levy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 425-453-4290.