City moving ahead on infrastructure for downtown, Bel-Red Corridor

The Bellevue City Council has endorsed a far-reaching initiative designed to deal with downtown transportation demands and future growth in the Bel-Red area.

The 10-year plan for calls for the construction or expansion of five major arterials to improve access to downtown and Bel-Red for transit, drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists. The city has targeted the two areas for more intense development to meet the state’s growth management requirements to reduce sprawl.

Approval of the projects comes at a time when transportation has been identified by residents as the top concern citywide. The blueprint also calls for major enhancements to the city’s computerized traffic light system to better control traffic flows and reduce congestion on key arterials, creation of a shuttle bus service for downtown and construction of new bicycle and pedestrian pathways.

The council is expected to finalize the plan’s various funding mechanisms in coming weeks.

“This is hugely important and forward-thinking on the part of the City Council,” City Manager Steve Sarkozy said. “Not only does it respond to existing transportation and other challenges, but it insures the Bel-Red area, like our downtown, evolves in coming years to become a significant asset for the entire community and Eastside.”

In recent years Bellevue’s downtown has experienced massive growth, with thousands of new workers and residents. A proposed rezone of Bel-Red, east of the downtown, is expected to spur more intense development there as Sound Transit moves ahead with plans for a new light rail line through Bellevue to Overlake. The new investments will supplement the city’s existing capital program. Plans call for:

Improving access to downtown. To help move traffic from downtown to the east and northeast parts of the city, new capital projects will extend Northeast Fourth Street, from 116th to 120th Avenue Northeast, and extend Northeast Sixth Street from Interstate 405 to 120th Avenue Northeast to relieve congestion and provide faster access for transit, carpools and vanpools.

Improving access in the Bel-Red area. The transportation centerpiece for the Bel-Red plan is Northeast 15th Street, a new east-west connection that would accommodate light rail, vehicles, bikes and walkers, helping to connect downtown and Overlake. Other plans call for widening 120th Avenue Northeast to five lanes, with sidewalks and bike lanes, from Northeast Eighth Street to Northup Way, and widening 124th Avenue Northeast from Northeast 15th Street to the SR 520 interchange.

Other upgrades to support growth. Several other components of the 10-year plan include pedestrian, bike and neighborhood sidewalk improvements; a variety of downtown projects; enhancements to the city’s signal system; a downtown circulator bus; money to buy the vacant lot next to city hall for a downtown fire station and other facilities; and funds to acquire property in the Bel-Red area.

To pay for the many investments, the council wants to spread the cost among developers, owners of property adjacent to the improvements and property owners citywide. The guiding philosophy is that those who benefit from the improvements should help pay for them. The council has identified a variety of funding options, including:

Property tax. Plans calls for a 3 percent annual increase in Bellevue’s share of the property tax over the next 10 years. Increases would have to be approved each year by council. The owner of a $626,000 Bellevue home will pay about $14 more in property taxes in 2009 as a result of the 3 percent boost.

Impact fees. Transportation impact fees – the amount of money Bellevue charges developers of new projects, based on the number of new car trips generated by the project – are expected to rise, generating about $65 million. The exact amount of the fees and how the increases would be phased in will be decided by the council.

Local Improvement Districts. Under this proposal, two local improvement districts, or LIDs, would be formed. Consisting of owners of property near streets slated for improvements, the idea is that those who benefit through increased property values help pay for the capital projects over time. Assessment amounts have not yet been determined; they will be based on factors such as the size of the property and its proximity to the improvements.

Other revenue sources. Storm drainage utility funds to pay for storm water and drainage improvements, future new tax revenue generated in the Bel-Red area due to new development, state and federal grant money, “incentive zoning” provision allowing more intense private development in exchange for public amenities, and cost savings from right-of-way land provided by property owners in return for development credits.

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