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Bellevue City Council will consider changing preferred light-rail routes

A transit user awaits a light-rail train at an underground station in downtown Seattle. The city of Bellevue is considering a tunnel option in downtown Bellevue to keep light rail off the streets. - Chad Coleman / Bellevue Reporter
A transit user awaits a light-rail train at an underground station in downtown Seattle. The city of Bellevue is considering a tunnel option in downtown Bellevue to keep light rail off the streets.
— image credit: Chad Coleman / Bellevue Reporter

The Bellevue City Council next month will consider revising its downtown routing preferences for East Link light rail after evaluating a slate of new options that have come into play.

Four additional alternatives have emerged since the council initially named favorites last February.

The new choices include a surface and a tunnel option for 110th Ave. NE, an at-grade route along 108th Ave. NE, and an elevated line on 114th Ave. NE.

The council is scheduled to evaluate those alternatives next month and decide on an updated preference by March.

Sound Transit needs input quickly to complete a final environmental review that is due by year's end. The agency's board of directors will make a binding decision on routing and station locations after that assessment is complete.

"It is extremely tight, but we recognize there is a keen interest in this section, and we'll make sure the decisions are well informed," said Bellevue regional projects manager Bernard van de Kamp.

Design work for East Link is scheduled to begin in 2011. Construction is due to start by 2014, and service to Bellevue is projected to launch in 2020.

Voters approved East Link in 2008, allowing Sound Transit to extend light rail from Seattle to the Eastside via I-90, Bellevue, and Redmond's Overlake area.

The council in February chose its preferred alternatives, selecting a route along Bellevue Way SE and 112th Avenue SE for South Bellevue, and a tunnel beneath 108th Ave. NE for downtown.

The Sound Transit board of directors selected those same routes as its favorites, but gave equal weight to a second downtown alternative: one that would place surface tracks along 108th Ave. NE and 110th Ave. NE.

The city is strongly opposed to any plan that runs surface tracks through the heart of downtown, mainly because of concerns over how this would affect businesses and traffic.

But a tunnel option will cost an estimated $500 million over the amount voters approved for East Link in 2008, and the city will be expected to cover that gap.

Several councilmembers have said it would be unfair to saddle Bellevue with the additional tunnel expense, since East Link is part of a regional transit system.

"I do get concerned that we're treating tunneling in Seattle much differently than we're treating tunneling in Bellevue," said Mayor Don Davidson, noting that federal funding and tax revenue from the regional transit authority helped pay for large light-rail tunnels in Seattle.

"I don't think we're being treated fairly," Davidson said.

In an apparent compromise, Sound Transit developed a shorter and less-expensive tunnel alternative for 110th Ave – one that would bring the tracks back to the surface at NE Sixth Street to cross I-405 and meet the BNSF rail corridor for a stop near NE Eighth Street.

Also under consideration is an elevated line on 114th Ave. NE. Bellevue councilmember Kevin Wallace proposed this route to avoid tunneling costs and major impacts to the central business district, but critics say the plan moves East Link too far from the densest part of downtown.

The city is working to identify funding sources and potential cost savings for a downtown tunnel option.

The council may eventually reconsider its preferred South Bellevue route after voters elected four candidates who prefer using the BNSF right of way instead of Bellevue Way SE for that segment.

Discussion on that segment of East Link is scheduled to begin Jan. 19 with the council.

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