On Thursday, April 25th, the Sound Transit Board approved a final plan for the route for East Link through Bellevue. East Link runs from downtown Seattle to Redmond via the I-90 Bridge, and is one of three extensions currently underway for the Sound Transit light rail system. The final plan is the end product of a collaborative process between Sound Transit Board members and staff and City of Bellevue Councilmembers and staff. I served as one of the three Sound Transit Board members on the negotiating team.
The East Link negotiations begin sixteen months ago, when Sound Transit and Bellevue resolved their differences about the core route through Bellevue with an agreement that had three major components:
- Instead of the surface route preferred by Sound Transit, there would be a tunnel in downtown Bellevue.
- Most of the rest of the route would follow Sound Transit’s preferred alignment, with some adjustments.
- Because the tunnel is more expensive than a surface alternative, Bellevue would provide $100 million in funding and work with Sound Transit to identify design elements that would reduce the cost of the route through Bellevue by an additional $60 million.
This turned out to be a difficult task. The ultimate agreement, approved unanimously approved by the Sound Transit Board and Bellevue Council, will reduce costs by an estimated $30 million to $53 million. Bellevue will continue to be responsible to provide the rest of the $60 million or secure additional cost savings.
The negotiations were difficult, challenging, but ultimately cooperative. The core interest from the Sound Transit side was to maintain fast, reliable and convenient service for riders. Bellevue Councilmembers also had to consider concerns raised by neighbors along the route about alternatives that reduced costs, worked for Sound Transit but impacted nearby residences.
The changes adopted include a fully at-grade alignment along 112th Avenue Southeast south of downtown. As the route moves north from South Bellevue Way and turns east onto 112th Avenue Southeast it will pass beneath a raised section of 112th at Southeast 15th Street to reach the west side of the roadway. A street-level crossing of Southeast Fourth Street will allow only emergency vehicle access into the Surrey Downs neighborhood at that location. The City of Bellevue had earlier proposed a trench alignment along 112th. The updated alignment is estimated to save $2 million to $4 million.
Trains will travel through downtown Bellevue in a tunnel. This plan replaces an underground station with a daylight station located slightly further north as the tunnel turns east onto Sixth Avenue and transitions to an elevated alignment in preparation to cross I-405. This change will save an estimated $19 million to $33 million.
Other refinements identified through the process will save an estimated $9 million to $16 million. Sound Transit’s work to advance engineering and secure permits will move forward under City of Bellevue land use changes that make the light rail extension a permitted use.
Along Bellevue Way, Sound Transit and Bellevue considered moving the light rail alignment from a trench north of the South Bellevue Park and Ride near the Winters House to an at grade alignment, as well as the possibility of coordinating construction of a new city HOV lane on Bellevue Way with the light rail project. The option would have required moving Bellevue Way to the west and constructing a retaining wall between the road and the Enatai neighborhood. However, the final decision was to keep the Link alignment in a trench. The City of Bellevue will independently evaluate and be responsible for any future construction of an HOV lane.
The outcome was not exactly what either side had hoped for. Some ideas turned out to be not as workable or save as much as had been hoped. Others were viewed positively by one party but not by the other. The ‘road over rail’ alternative and surface crossing at SE 4th create a more efficient system for light rail, but keeping the cut at the Winters House was not our preferred option.
The 6th Avenue surface station was the major issue. We were concerned about the quality of the station and whether moving it would reduce pedestrian access and ridership. Ultimately, the Board decided that we could live with the compromise on design. After carefully reviewing the walkshed around the station, we concluded that there would be little or no impact on ridership. This alternative also shortens construction time, and Bellevue agreed to invest $5 million in improving the pedestrian experience. These positives provided significant balance that reduced my initial resistance to this station alternative.
Ultimately, the Board agreed to this package because of the positive elements included, but also because the formal approval from Bellevue clears the way for construction to begin without the threat of litigation and delay. The negotiations forged a spirit of cooperation and mutual investment that will keep this project on track to completion. Property acquisition can begin immediately, construction can start in 2015, and trains can be operating by 2023. Being able to keep that timetable was the critical factor in persuading me to approve a package that would not have been my first choice. By 2030, East Link will carry 50,000 riders a day, creating a transit system that will reduce vehicle traffic and better integrate travel options around the region. That’s worth making some modest compromises!
East Link documents including maps of the alignment are available at http://projects.soundtransit.org/Projects-Home/East-Link-Project.xml