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City faces emotional opposition to light rail savings plan
More than 100 Bellevue homes, most in Bellevue's Enatai and Surry Downs neighborhoods could be negatively impacted by a $60 million cost savings plan that the city council is currently considering. The city would take over and demolish dozens of houses, cut into the yards of dozens of others and block neighborhood access to more. The proposal would also take the light rail out of a trench next to the road, and put it at the same level with the road, which, some argue, would make it much noisier and uglier.
Sound Transit and city staff have put forward the proposal, to offset costs associated with a $300 million tunnel under downtown Bellevue that wasn't part of the original Seattle to Bellevue light rail plan. "The tunnel provides better times and doesn't intersect with traffic," said Bernard Van De Kamp, the city's associate planning director. "It wasn't voted on, officially, but but it was known to be a possibility."
Sound Transit and the City of Bellevue plan to split the tunnel's cost, with Bellevue picking up $160 million, and Sound Transit covering the rest. The city found their first $100 million easily enough through dedications of land and revenue as well as cash, and asked their staff engineers to try to come up with proposals to shave the remaining $60 million off the project. If the city doesn't engineer $60 million of savings into the plan, then they'll need to find it in ways that could much more negatively impact their budget, according to city officials.
Bellevue residents who anticipate losing property value have been vocal in their aversion to the new plans.
Tears and opposition flowed openly at a public meeting Tuesday about a light rail plan that could save the city several million dollars but dramatically lower property values and quality of life, especially in west Bellevue's Enatai neighborhood.
"I don't feel like I can live here any more, and it's just devastating for me," a sobbing female attorney told a staff member. She requested that her name not be published.
If the city council approves the plan, Bellevue Way would shift 30 to 40 feet west, into the Enatai neighborhood, to make room for light rail and an HOV lane that would run from the main entrance of the South Bellevue Station to the intersection of Bellevue Way and 112th Avenue.
It would bring traffic 25 feet from the back door of Robert and Pat Rosell's home, which they have lived in since 1988. "I could almost spit and hit traffic," Robert Rosell said. "I wish the city council would physically take a walk down and look. It might open their thinking a little wider. They're impacting a lot of lives."
The city claims that the plan would save several million dollars, compared with the original plan. One major source of savings, they say, comes from combining building an HOV lane with the light rail transit project. It would cost $11 million if the projects are combined, compared with $18 million if they were done separately. Another major savings, they say, would come from putting the light rail at the level with the road, rather than in a trench. That could save an additional $7 to $11 million, according to estimates by city and sound transit planners.
Those estimates are based on plans that are only 5 to 10 percent complete, but city and sound transit planners say that they're accurate. Their cost analysis, they add, was conducted in a reasonable way, and it was based on accurate data.
But Rosell and others have questioned the accuracy of the estimates, because they're still in the "conceptual phase." "They don't know if it'll definitely save them anything," he said. "It may be a wash."
Rosell also questions whether a new HOV lane is necessary. "The problem isn't the capacity on Bellevue Way," he said, "it's funneling traffic onto I-90."
But the politics surrounding the project make it feel a bit like, "a train in motion," he said, and it could be difficult to stop. He hopes that the city council will "take a step back and see how they're serving the community. All they're really doing is harming the community with no benefit."
Tamara Williams, who bought her Enatai home shortly before the housing bubble burst, says that she's generally in favor of light rail, if it's done appropriately. But she's appalled that the city is even considering this particular proposal. "I'm really upset that the city thinks it's appropriate to destroy our property values," she said. "This is a serious degradation to our quality of life."
In the Surrey Downs neighborhood, the city is considering putting the light rail across north fourth street, either at the street level, cutting off access to the neighborhood, or by putting the light rail above the street, allowing pedestrians and traffic to pass underneath it. The city also has plans to force about 56 homeowners in the neighborhood to sell their houses, to be demolished for the project.
Tim Osburn said that he discovered, at the meeting, that his house would be demolished under one of the cost saving options that the city is considering. "They're going to kick me out of my house, and I'm going to lose $100,000 of my own money, and I had to come here to find out about it," Osburn said. Geoff Patrick, a media relations spokesman for Sound Transit insisted that the city isn't, by any means stealing the homes. "There are instances where we need to acquire property, but if there's disagreement about what the value is, they have the ability to access the courts," he said.
Leonard Marion, who has lived in Surrey Downs for 15 years, said that the city is asking too much of the community. "We already feel like our community is severely taking a hit," he said. "They can't keep asking us to pay the price."
"Our neighborhood is definitely advocating for the (city's original) alignment," Betsy Blackstock, a founding member of the Surrey Downs East Link Committee, said. "The opinion of our neighborhood is that the trench is the (only) mitigation of light rail."
The city and Sound Transit plan to host a town hall tonight to discuss cost saving options for the portion of the light rail running through downtown Bellevue Thursday from 4 to 6 p.m. at Bellevue City Hall, 450 110th Ave. N.E.