Hopes, fears at light-rail meeting in Bellevue

This rendering shows how Sound Transit
This rendering shows how Sound Transit's East Link light rail line would look on the I-90 bridge facing east toward Bellevue.
— image credit: Sound Transit

(Story originally posted Feb. 11, 6:50 p.m.)

Members of the Bellevue City Council and the Sound Transit board met Thursday for a summit on light rail routing at the Meydenbauer Center in Bellevue.

Participants discussed their hopes and fears about East Link during the meeting, and Sound Transit extended the timeline for its board to choose a final preferred route, naming late April as the new target time rather than March.

The meeting centered on four new alternatives for the downtown Bellevue segment of East Link.

Bellevue city council members each expressed fears about the potential impacts of a surface route through downtown. Councilmember Kevin Wallace put it bluntly, saying: "Light rail must avoid Bellevue roads."

How to avoid those roads is another story.

Sound Transit's new downtown routing alternatives consist of the following options:

• An at-grade route along 110th Ave. NE (C9A)

• A tunnel beneath 110th Ave. NE (C9T)

• At-grade tracks along 108th Ave. NE (C11A)

• Elevated tracks beside 114th Ave. NE (C14E)

The Sound Transit board in May named C4A as its preferred route, which would run East Link at-grade and in opposite directions along 110th Ave. NE and 108th Ave. NE.

The city council in May recommended a separate tunnel route known as C3T that would travel below 108th Ave. NE, but councilmembers have been receptive to the C9T alternative since Sound Transit first unveiled it in September.

Bellevue councilmember Grant Degginger is a staunch supporter of downtown tunnel options, although they are projected to cost hundreds of millions of dollars beyond what the voter-approved ST2 transit package provides.

Sound Transit has said that the city would have to produce additional funding for a tunnel on its own.

Degginger argues that it wouldn't fair to saddle Bellevue with the additional costs, saying it's in the best interest of the region to keep East Link moving quickly through a downtown tunnel.

Additionally, Degginger says the entire state would suffer from any negative impacts to the city's central business district. He noted during the summit that Bellevue is the second largest sales-tax revenue generator in the state, as well as the second largest jobs center.

"My fears are that we will choose the politically- or economically-expedient solutions rather than what's best long-term," Degginger said.

Bellevue councilmember John Chelminiak, another strong backer of the tunnel alternatives, said going below ground is "the way this system will work."

But another solution for keeping light rail off of Bellevue's downtown streets comes from Wallace, who crafted the C14E plan – or the "Vision Line," as he calls it.

There has been friction on the council lately over which option is best between Wallace's plan and the tunnel alternatives.

The Vision Line keeps light rail entirely off of Bellevue streets, but moves the stations further from the downtown core, where East Link is likely to attract the greatest number of riders.

The tunnel options are far more expensive, but they stop closer to the Bellevue Transit Center, located in the heart of the city's central business district.

Studies for the downtown Bellevue light rail design report have shown that Wallace's Vision Line would cost $145 million below the ST2 budget, while the tunnel along 110th Ave. NE (C9T) would exceed the ST2 allowance by $285 million.

The at-grade route along 108th Ave. NE (C11A) would cost the least at $680 million, according to the report.

In terms of travel times, the Vision Line would be two minutes faster than C9T, and it would have the lowest construction effects of all the new alternatives, the report said.

However, ridership for that alternative would be lowest, with 2,000 fewer riders per day than C9T, according to the report.

Sound Transit board member Paula Hammond said during the summit meeting that ridership is one of her foremost concerns in choosing a route.

Noticeably absent from the summit meeting was talk of the controversial South Bellevue segment. The council has considered revising its preferred option for that area.

Discussions between the Sound Transit board and Bellevue City Council are expected to continue as the board prepares to vote on its final preferred route.

Bellevue Mayor Don Davidson asked Sound Transit executive director Joni Earl and Bellevue city manager Steve Sarkozy to create a work plan for the summit group.

Once the board chooses its final preferred alternative, Sound Transit can focus on that route for the last phase of its environmental-review process – although other options will be included in the study to a lesser degree.

The board of directors will make a final decision on routing and station locations after the review is complete. Design work on East Link is scheduled to begin in 2011, with construction expected to start by 2014.

*[This story has been corrected to reflect accurate information about how the estimated costs for the Vision Line and C9T would compare to the ST2 budget. The original story incorrectly stated that the Vision Line would exceed that budget.]

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