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Originally published June 28, 2012 at 9:36 PM | Page modified June 29, 2012 at 1:08 PM

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Light-rail plan moves ahead in Bellevue; UW-Northgate project OK'd

After months of technical analysis, private discussions and public debate, Sound Transit and Bellevue have agreed — almost entirely — on possible changes to the planned light-rail route through the Eastside's largest city.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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After months of technical analysis, private discussions and public debate, Sound Transit and Bellevue have agreed — almost entirely — on possible changes to the planned light-rail route through the Eastside's largest city.

The Sound Transit Board on Thursday approved a shortlist of cost-saving alternatives to be studied in detail.

Public discussions of the concepts have shown it won't be easy to achieve three sometimes-conflicting goals: reducing cost; providing "exceptional mitigation" for noise and effects on views and traffic; and building a transit system that's efficient and well-used.

When opened in 2023, the $2.8 billion East Link line will connect Seattle, Mercer Island, Bellevue and Redmond's Overlake area.

In a separate action, the Sound Transit Board approved a $2.1 billion North Link project that will build a mostly underground line from the University of Washington to Northgate, with stations on Brooklyn Avenue Northeast, in the Roosevelt District and at Northgate. The line is scheduled to open in 2021.

The transit board agreed to consider possibly joining with Seattle and other funders to build an estimated $20 million pedestrian and bicycle bridge across Interstate 5 at Northgate.

The East Link work plan for studying cost-saving concepts in Bellevue was identical to the recommendations of a joint team of Sound Transit Board members and Bellevue City Council members. The City Council changed one recommendation when it adopted the plan Monday.

Mayor Conrad Lee said Thursday he was pleased with the ongoing discussions. "I think if we work together we can solve those problems," he said. "If we don't, somebody else like the courts has to do that. That's the last resort. Hopefully we will come to an agreement before we go there."

In adopting the shortlist of possible changes, the city and transit board threw out a number of options — including an unpopular part of the adopted plan that would have erected an elevated rail structure beside two neighborhoods south of downtown Bellevue.

Other proposed changes have drawn opposition from many residents, who say moving the rail line out of a trench and onto the surface south of downtown would mean more noise, an obstructed view of Mercer Slough Nature Park, and reduced access to the park and the Surrey Downs neighborhood.

The Eastside Heritage Center has also voiced concerns about a surface line.

The Bellevue Downtown Association, the pro-rail group Move Bellevue Forward and some Sound Transit board members have warned that moving the downtown station from underneath 110th Avenue Northeast to a surface location on Northeast Sixth Street could hurt ridership. The BDA and the Bellevue Chamber of Commerce are worried that a narrower underground station could take away a lane of traffic on 110th Avenue and worsen congestion.

Bellevue and Sound Transit are studying the alternatives in the hope they will contain total project costs and reduce the city's cash outlay for a downtown tunnel by as much as $60 million.

The $320 million tunnel, to be jointly funded by the city and the transit agency, wasn't part of the Sound Transit 2 plan approved by voters in 2008.

Here are the cost-saving options that will be studied:

Moving the rail line to the surface north of the South Bellevue Park and Ride and shifting the tracks, Bellevue Way Southeast and a new southbound HOV lane to the west to avoid the historic Winters House. If Bellevue decides next month not to build the HOV lane, the Winters House could be moved eastward, according to Sound Transit's version of the plan. Bellevue identified shifting the road as its preferred alternative to a trench, regardless of the HOV decision. If the City Council commits to building the HOV lane as expected, the difference in the plans would become a moot point.

• Running the line below a raised 112th Avenue Southeast instead of crossing the road on a more intrusive elevated rail structure. For this option to save money, the rail line would have to remain on the surface rather than dropping into a trench north of the crossing.

• Two cost-saving options are being studied for the downtown rail station beneath 110th Avenue Northeast: a narrower underground station with tracks in one direction stacked above the other tracks, or a surface station on Northeast Sixth Street.

Because the City Council opposes road-level crossings with gates and bells, surface tracks beside 112th Avenue would likely mean closing the Fourth Street intersection with 112th. Sound Transit and the city will explore ways to maintain Surrey Downs' access to 112th.

To control noise from a surface line along 112th and Bellevue Way, Sound Transit and the city are considering lowering tracks slightly below ground level.

The design process has been amicable, by all accounts, and a far cry from an earlier conflict over Sound Transit's preferred route and the City Council's preference for a route east of Mercer Slough. The city agreed to the Sound Transit route in November.

Now, as the city works on refinements to that route, City Councilmember John Stokes said Monday:

"We've tried to make it clear that the cost savings by themselves are not the goal. It's cost savings that are consistent with the mitigation and with building the best system possible."

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

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