Bellevue considers light rail through treasured wetland
The Bellevue City Council has asked Sound Transit to study a new light-rail route that would run through the middle of Mercer Slough, but getting permits to cross the slough could be difficult.
Seattle Times Eastside reporter
For more than two decades, Bellevue has nurtured and celebrated its Mercer Slough Nature Park — snapping up chunks of land to enlarge it, building an $11 million environmental-education center on its eastern edge and billing the 320-acre green space as the Northwest's largest urban-wetland park.
But this week, the Bellevue City Council asked Sound Transit to study a new East Link light-rail route that would slice through the middle of Mercer Slough, splitting the largest wetland on Lake Washington with an elevated train.
It's a route that could have trouble winning approval from key regulatory agencies, environmentalists say.
And even one council member concedes it might not be realistic.
Bellevue Councilwoman Claudia Balducci, who also sits on the Sound Transit board, said shifting part of the $3 billion light-rail route to the east side of the slough, along Interstate 405, has "some aspects that are helpful to us."
Scores of homeowners along Bellevue Way Southeast, and condominium owners on 118th Avenue Southeast, strongly oppose putting the line near their buildings or neighborhoods. They say the trains would be noisy, increase traffic, bring crime to the area and cause a loss of property and property value for homes next to the line. The new proposal would keep the train line away from both of those areas.
Balducci acknowledged "this (alignment) has more environmental impacts than some of the others." But she, Councilman Grant Degginger and Mayor Don Davidson say light rail in south Bellevue is going to cause environmental harm no matter where it's located.
"The reality is, it is going to be impossible to get downtown without crossing a stream, a wetland or challenging soils," Degginger said.
Davidson said he thinks a line through the slough might be less disruptive than other options, especially for salmon, because the pillars that support an elevated line aren't environmentally detrimental to fish.
Doubts about permits
Futurewise, a statewide growth-management group, said the transit agency would have trouble getting necessary local and federal permits to build a rail line across a large wetland when there are other options.
Under a section of the federal Clean Water Act that protects wetlands, Sound Transit would have to show there is no reasonable alternative to going through the slough, and also it would have to mitigate any effects to the wetland, said Tim Trohimovich, a co-director of Futurewise.
A rail line that crosses the wetland would need to be permitted by at least three agencies: the Army Corps of Engineers, the state Department of Ecology and the city of Bellevue itself, under its critical areas ordinance, Trohimovich said.
"We have concerns about it, and we'll definitely let our members know," he said.
Environmentalists say although the proposed line would be elevated above the slough, it would change the character of the wetland, an overwintering spot for a host of migratory birds.
Andy McCormick, conservation chair of Eastside Audubon, said the route would "fundamentally alter the nature of the park." Eastside Audubon called it "ill-advised and unnecessary," and has asked the council to reverse course.
Hugh Jennings, an Eastside Audubon member who has done a census of the Mercer Slough bird population, said the channel of water that meanders through the wetland is used by ducks as a flyway and by swallows in the summer. He's counted 69 species in the slough, including the threatened Rufous hummingbird.
"It would seem that these birds would be in danger of being hit by a train going by," he said.
"A big ask"
Asking Sound Transit to study a new alignment through south Bellevue is "a big ask," said Councilman John Chelminiak, and the federal wetlands issue might make it a very short study. Chelminiak said he'd be surprised if it proved to be a good route for the line.
Chelminiak said he went along with the request because he hopes it will help the council come together over an even bigger light-rail issue: the alignment of the train through downtown Bellevue. Chelminiak is a proponent of building a tunnel downtown.
Last year, the Bellevue council endorsed a light-rail route up Bellevue Way Southeast and through downtown, and in May the Sound Transit board also endorsed it as the preferred choice.
A final decision on the alignment is to come this year, and construction could start in three or four years. The line is expected to open in 2020.
But in January, two new council members were sworn in, shifting the majority of the council to those who favor keeping light rail away from neighborhoods and farther from the center of the downtown business district.
The council has spent part of January revisiting the route and coming up with new options, including a downtown alignment proposed by newly elected Councilman Kevin Wallace that would route the tracks next to I-405 downtown.
Sound Transit has set up a joint workshop between the Bellevue council and Sound Transit board members on Feb. 11 to hash out the differences. "We're still in the sausage-making stage," Balducci said.
Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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