Q: Transportation is a critical concern in Bellevue and residents perennially list it as a top issue in the city’s annual performance measures survey. What is Bellevue doing to help commuters, residents and visitors get around?
A: We are working on several fronts to improve our transportation system. Regionally, we’re working to remove the remaining impediments to construction of a new SR 520 bridge and improve that vital corridor. Also, we have devoted a great deal of attention to the expansion of light rail to the Eastside.
In Bellevue, the council has identified critical mobility projects necessary to improve traffic flow into and out of downtown. Some of these improvements are underway on I-405; others are road projects within downtown, the Wilburton area and the Bel-Red corridor. Keeping in mind that we cannot just pave our way out of congestion, we are expanding critical roadways in a very targeted way that will get us maximum mobility for our money.
Other efforts include commuter programs providing good options to driving alone and upgrades to our pedestrian and bicycle networks.
Q: What are some examples of roadway projects that make travel in Bellevue more convenient?
A: In recent years Bellevue has partnered with the state Department of Transportation (WSDOT) on major projects designed to make it easier to get in and out of Bellevue. One of those, called Access Downtown, expanded the capacity of downtown interchanges to I-405 and added a special bus and carpool ramp that conveniently connects the freeway to the Bellevue Transit Center. Currently, we’re partnering with WSDOT to extend Northeast 10th Street across I-405, tying downtown to the city’s growing medical district. We’re also coordinating with WSDOT on the I-405, South Bellevue Widening Project to reduce congestion on one the region’s toughest stretches of freeway, south of downtown approaching I-90. Finally, the so-called braided ramp project on I-405, north of Northeast Eighth Street, will begin soon. This project, designed to eliminate the freeway “weave” between downtown and SR 520, is funded in part by the federal stimulus package.
Q: Why’s it so important to improve the transportation system in the downtown area?
A: Downtown Bellevue is the second largest employment center in the region. Currently there are roughly 40,000 people who work downtown, but that number is expected to jump to 63,000 by 2020; the number of downtown residents, approximately 5,500 now, is projected to hit 14,000 by 2020. We simply must find new ways to move people more efficiently if we are to keep up with anticipated growth. We think the key to our transportation future is a gradual shift away from solo driving and toward alternatives that are convenient, economical and environmentally friendly.
Q: What other steps is Bellevue taking to maintain a balanced transportation system in the future?
A: Last year, the City Council approved a Mobility and Infrastructure Initiative designed to improve access to and from downtown and the Bel-Red area. The initiative features a mix of road building, “intelligent transportation” improvements to the city’s traffic signals system, improvements that compliment Metro’s “Rapid Ride” bus service between Bellevue and Redmond – scheduled to begin in 2011 – and improvements to our pedestrian and bicycle system. Another significant improvement, albeit one that won’t arrive for a while, is Sound Transit’s light rail service.
Q: Sound Transit’s light rail line expansion approved by voters last year includes East Link, which will run from Seattle, through Bellevue to the Overlake area of Redmond. What has Bellevue done to make sure the route best serves local and regional interests?
A: Prior to the release of a draft environmental review of East Link late last year, Bellevue embarked on a year-long “Best Practices” effort. A panel of citizens who serve on our boards and commissions studied light rail systems in other West Coast cities in order to learn lessons that could be applied in Bellevue. The work resulted in many changes to the city’s comprehensive plan and serves as a guide to help protect neighborhood character and make sure the East Link route delivers efficient, reliable service in a manner that’s compatible with our city’s goals and values.
Q: Council members and others have expressed a desire to have a light rail tunnel beneath downtown Bellevue, rather than the street-level system recommended by the Sound Transit Board. Why is a tunnel important?
A: The council is very concerned that running light rail on the surface through downtown will seriously back up traffic and slow down the light rail service. A tunnel option would prevent both of these impacts. Plus, projections show that a tunnel would attract higher ridership than the surface option. We are continuing to work with Sound Transit in finding ways to address the tunnel option.