Sound Transit breaks ground in Bellevue

Amid the fanfare and excitement of breaking ground on Sound Transit's East Link light rail extension came the stark reality of how far the area has to go.

Senator Patty Murray speaks at the EastLink Extension groundbreaking in Downtown Bellevue. She has spent years working with county government and state departments to make the light rail project a reality.

Amid the fanfare and excitement of breaking ground on Sound Transit’s East Link light rail extension came the stark reality of how far the area has to go.

On Friday, April 22, dignitaries, residents, business leaders and curious passersby came to watch the groundbreaking in Downtown Bellevue, only to be reminded the line won’t see service until 2023.

Despite that, the challenge of getting to this point was a cause for celebration.

“Anything that changes needs the people leading to bring the people with them,” said Washington State Rep. Judy Clibborn (D-Mercer Island). “Persistence is the word you need to have at the front of your mind. This is not just about us, this is about how we see the people in the future.”

The East Link Extension will send light rail across Lake Washington from Seattle. The tracks will use Interstate-90 to cross Mercer Island before turning north in Bellevue near Mercer Slough. From there, the tracks will enter a tunnel in Downtown Bellevue before emerging near Bellevue City Hall and heading east over I-405 near Overlake Hospital and the planned Spring District. It will continue northeasterly along the Bel-Red corridor and into Redmond.

10 new stops are planned along the 14 mile stretch of tracks which has been budgeted for $3.7 billion.

An enormous project, to be sure, but one central Puget Sound is sorely lacking, said members of the Sound Transit board.

“Light rail is reliable, fast and on-time,” said Sound Transit Board Chair Dow Constantine. “We’ll have light rail from Des Moines to Shoreline. Students will have a congestion-free ride to classes at U.W. and fans to Seahawks games. People ride these trains and say ‘oh it’s like a big city!’ Folks, this is a big city.”

The project has not been without its challenges, as King County Councilmember and former Bellevue Mayor Bellevue Claudia Balducci well knows.

According to Peter Rogoff, chief executive officer of Sound Transit, said “no single individual has taken more battle scars, no single individual has inflicted more battle scars” than Balducci.

However when the strong-willed Sound Transit board member took the podium, instead of recounting the battles over several years, she was gracious to those who had helped the project along the way, including retired Sound Transit Chief Executive Officer Joni Earl and Mayor of Issaquah Fred Butler (who was still on the mend from a April 10 heart attack) and the entire city government of Redmond.

“They have been the good sibling in all of this,” she said.

The first construction phase of the East Link extension — the Downtown Bellevue tunnel — is already underway. It will be followed by the Overlake to Redmond portion in Mid 2016, the South Bellevue route in late 2016, the Bel-Red portion in Early 2017 and the I-90 and Wilburton/Central Bellevue portions to begin construction in mid 2017.

Rogoff said it was fitting the group was breaking ground on Earth Day.

“There are few things more friendly to the environment than replacing traffic jams with all-electric trains,” he said.

Sen. Patty Murray said she had been working hard to increase modes of greener transit since she got into office.

“We have come a long way,” she said. “The exciting thing is that there is a lot more to come.”

Sound Transit estimates that by 2030, more than 50,000 people will ride the train daily. Initial ridership estimates for the Capitol Hill and U-Link light rail stations have been exceeded, Sound Transit said.

Other links to Issaquah, Redmond and Everett will be on a ballot this fall.

For Ahmad Fazel, Sound Transit’s executive director or design and construction, the link is an opportunity for safe jobs that fit with the community.

“We are committed to being good neighbors,” said the lead behind the recently finished U-Link and Capitol Hill stations, which came in early and under budget. “This project will have over eight million hours of work and safety is our first priority.”

So while some worry about the necessity of light rail, the gathered politicians and transportation experts at the groundbreaking wanted to assure residents of Seattle and the Eastside that the project would be reliable and would eficiently take tens of thousands of daily commuters off the roads.

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