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Originally published March 15, 2013 at 8:58 PM | Page modified March 15, 2013 at 8:58 PM

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Bellevue, Sound Transit, judge keep light-rail plan on track

Sound Transit’s light-rail project through Bellevue has gotten boosts from a federal judge’s ruling and from the City Council’s adoption of a streamlined permitting process.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Open houses on light rail

An open house on design of Sound Transit’s East Link light-rail segment through Bellevue’s Bel-Red Corridor will be held from 4 to 7 p.m. March 28 at Highland Community Center, 14224 Bel-Red Road.

An open house on South Bellevue and downtown cost-saving ideas and their environmental impact will be from 4 to 7 p.m. April 3 at Bellevue City Hall, 450 110th Ave. N.E.

For more information about the East Link project, see www.soundtransit.org/eastlink

Source: Sound Transit

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Watching Bellevue and Sound Transit talk about light-rail transit has sometimes been like watching Laurel and Hardy.

You just knew something would go wrong.

But the relationship has been on the mend, and things have gone particularly well the past few weeks.

First the Bellevue City Council streamlined the permitting process for the East Link rail project — a $2.8 billion undertaking that will connect Seattle, Mercer Island, Bellevue and Overlake by rail, with train service to begin in a decade.

Then a federal judge rejected a lawsuit by South Bellevue residents who hoped to keep rail lines out of their neighborhoods by putting them underground, moving them elsewhere or replacing trains with buses.

Now the city and transit agency seem confident they’ll be able to agree on thorny design issues — including where to put the downtown Bellevue station.

“It is a goal of mine to ensure that Bellevue is not the cause of delay to Sound Transit. We have worked very hard to assure that is not the case,” City Councilmember Kevin Wallace said.

Sound Transit plans to begin construction of the rail line in 2015, with train service to start in 2023.

Wallace, who long opposed the agency’s preferred route and was sometimes accused of trying to kill the light-rail project, has sought common ground with Sound Transit on details of the plan since the two jurisdictions agreed on a route in 2011.

One of three council members leading ongoing negotiations with Sound Transit board members, Wallace played a key role last month in crafting a permitting process acceptable to the transit agency, City Council and South Bellevue residents.

The council voted 7-0 in favor of the first-ever permitting rules for light rail.

Don Billen, Sound Transit’s East Link deputy project director, called its passage a positive sign because it kept a commitment made by the City Council more than a year earlier.

Wallace and other council members who previously opposed a route along Bellevue Way Southeast and 112th Avenue Southeast dropped that fight in 2011 to focus their efforts on controlling rail-related noise and view obstruction.

Conflicts between cost-saving goals and neighborhood protection have repeatedly threatened to force negotiations off track, but — unlike whatever the two hapless movie comedians set out to do in the 1930s — the talks never quite fell apart.

The East Link project has, so far at least, withstood legal challenges.

U.S. District Court Judge John Coughenour on March 7 rejected a suit by Building a Better Bellevue and Friends of Enatai that attempted to send an environmental review back to the drawing board.

Those groups, which oppose a surface rail line along Bellevue Way and 112th Avenue, said Sound Transit’s environmental study was insufficient because it didn’t consider a deep-bore tunnel, a nonrail alternative or a route east of Mercer Slough.

Coughenour disagreed, saying the decision to build rail instead of an alternative such as bus rapid transit “was the result of a long, careful and deliberative process.” Building a Better Bellevue said it will decide in the next week or so whether to appeal.

The project continues to face challenges.

The state Supreme Court heard oral arguments last month on Bellevue Square developer Kemper Freeman Jr.’s claim that replacing the express lanes of the Interstate 90 floating bridge with Sound Transit light-rail tracks would be an unconstitutional use of gas-tax dollars.

Bellevue and Sound Transit will try to decide next month which cost-cutting options should offset part of the cost of a downtown tunnel.

The two jurisdictions have yet to negotiate a development agreement for the rail line, and Sound Transit is studying three sites in Bellevue and one in Lynnwood for a controversial train storage and maintenance facility.

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or kervin@seattletimes.com

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