Eastside light rail: What will it bring?

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By Joshua Adam Hicks
Reporter Newspapers
Voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 1 last November, setting the stage for bringing Link Light Rail to the Eastside.
Planning is now under way for East Link, an 18-mile extension of the system that would connect downtown Seattle with Mercer Island, Bellevue and Redmond.
Along with light rail comes transit-oriented development, which means increased density for targeted areas like the Bel-Red corridor and Overlake.
The cities of Bellevue and Redmond are working with Sound Transit to coordinate plans for their areas.
“Light rail around the country has proven to be a real catalyst for development,” said Sound Transit spokesman Bruce Gray.
Sound Transit opened the light-rail routing discussions in December, asking the public where and how its tracks should be laid.
The agency’s board of directors chose a set of preferred alternatives in May, but the committee isn’t expected to make a final decision on alignments until after an environmental impact study is completed in 2010.
Mercer Island makes for perhaps the easiest call, with only one proposed line running along Interstate 90 and stopping once at a station between 77th and 80th Avenues.
The other cities are a different story.

Bellevue
A myriad of options become available once light rail jumps into Bellevue off of I-90.
The board’s preferred alternative for south Bellevue would run on elevated tracks along the east side of Bellevue Way Southeast, before touching down near the South Bellevue Park-and-Ride. It would then travel at-grade to 112th Avenue Southeast and continue downtown.
Residents from neighborhoods adjacent to Bellevue Way have opposed this plan in favor of a line that would run along the abandoned Burlington Northern Sante Fe tracks near 118th Avenue Southeast.
Efforts are still under way to get Sound Transit to choose a modified route along that right of way, although those plans have met with opposition from nearby condo-dwellers.
The Sound Transit board approved two options for downtown Bellevue: one that uses a tunnel and another that runs at-grade. Both the city and the Bellevue Downtown Association are opposed to the surface alternative.
“It would be a nightmare to lose any part of Bellevue Way during construction,” said Bellevue Mayor Grant Degginger.
The board’s preferred tunnel option would travel beneath 108th Avenue Northeast, stop at the Bellevue Transit Center, and then turn up Northeast 12th Street toward a station near the hospital district.
The surface route would run along Main Street before heading one way in each direction along 110th Avenue Northeast and 108th Avenue Northeast with a stop at the Bellevue Transit Center. It would then turn onto Northeast 12th Street and stop again in the hospital district.
Sound Transit estimates that the tunnel option would cost an additional $500 million – money not covered as part of the ballot measure that voters approved in November.
It’s up to the city of Bellevue to find the means for financing the underground alternative. Degginger says the city is confident it can find cost savings in the proposed Sound Transit routes, for instance by running surface rather than elevated tracks along the Bel-Red corridor.
Degginger also suggested that Sound Transit’s cost estimates for building a tunnel are high. Nonetheless, the city is working to identify potential funding sources for the underground alternative.

Redmond
The Sound Transit Board chose a preferred route from downtown Bellevue to Overlake Transit Center that serves the Bel-Red corridor, Overlake Village and the Microsoft campus.
The tracks would run elevated and at-grade to the north of Bel-Red Road, mainly along a newly expanded Northeast 16th Street that Bellevue plans to build.
The route then turns up 136th Place Northeast and connects with SR 520 before crossing to the north side of Northeast 24th Street and then hooking into a station at 152nd Place Northeast.
From there the tracks would run along 520 to reach Overlake Transit Center.
Sound Transit is already making plans to extend East Link to downtown Redmond, although it would take another voter-approved initiative to bring that concept to fruition.
The board has identified a preferred alternative in the event that this happens. The route would run along the south side of 520, touching the edge of Marymoor Park, before turning onto the BNSF right of way for a stop at the Redmond Town Center.
From there the tracks would travel to 161st Avenue Northeast and then stop.
The original plan called for the route to move up 161st Avenue, but there was opposition to that idea because of the number of homes and business that would be displaced.

Board representation
Degginger has suggested that Bellevue should have a representative on the seven-member Sound Transit Board.
“It’s been a huge handicap not having a Bellevue representative,” he said. “So much of East Link runs through Bellevue.”
King County executive candidate Susan Hutchison has seconded that notion, mentioning it several times during her primary campaign.
Redmond Mayor John Marchione, one of three Eastside representatives on the board, says the committee works fine the way it is.
“If a representative comes from Bellevue only to represent the city, that would be disappointing,” he said. “It needs to reflect what the global light-rail system looks like.”
The other Eastside board members include Mary-Alyce Burleigh of Kirkland and Fred Butler of Issaquah.
Joshua Adam Hicks is a writer for the Bellevue Reporter. He can be reached at jhicks@bellevuereporter.com.