Plan for Bellevue light-rail yard stuns city officials
Bellevue City Council members are angry Sound Transit didn't tell them it was considering building a large rail yard in the city last year when the jurisdictions were negotiating an agreement on a light-rail route and cost sharing.
Seattle Times staff reporter
While Sound Transit and Bellevue were negotiating an agreement on a future light-rail route, the transit agency didn't mention for several months that it was thinking about building a large maintenance and storage yard in the city.
That has angered City Council members, who learned only after signing an agreement last year that Sound Transit was studying Bellevue sites for a 20-acre-plus, $225 million rail yard.
Finding out a project of that size wasn't disclosed during last year's negotiations is very troubling, said Councilwoman Jennifer Robertson, and it means to her colleague Kevin Wallace that the transit agency "has been basically lying to us."
It isn't clear how those feelings will affect ongoing talks about streamlined permitting and design of the rail line and stations.
Sound Transit contends its proposed "operations and maintenance satellite facility" is a separate project from the East Link project that is scheduled to connect Seattle, Mercer Island, Bellevue and Redmond by 2023.
Several City Council members and the city manager say the rail line and the rail yard should be evaluated as a single project.
Four of the five rail-yard sites under consideration by Sound Transit are in the Bel-Red Corridor, a largely industrial area the City Council has designated for high-intensity office and residential development around two light-rail stations.
The fifth site is in Lynnwood, where the Edmonds School District intends to build a combined headquarters, transportation and maintenance facility.
The Bellevue City Council opposes selection of any of the Bellevue sites, and the Lynnwood council opposes the site there. All five sites have drawn criticism from nearby residents and businesses.
The 20- to 25-acre facility would be used to store, clean and maintain 80 train cars nightly, operators would report there for work, and offices would house dispatchers and other workers. Sound Transit's current maintenance yard — too small to handle a much larger fleet — is in Seattle's Sodo area.
Sound Transit's capital committee put off a decision this month on recommending which sites to include in an environmental study, asking staff members to summarize characteristics of the parcels it has already looked at and others suggested by citizens and outside organizations.
When Sound Transit staffers realized early last year they would need to put a large maintenance base near either the east or north end of the line, "it wasn't intuitive to us that it was going to be a surprise" to Bellevue, Ric Ilgenfritz, Sound Transit's executive director for project development, told the City Council earlier this month.
That's because several rail-yard sites in Bellevue and Redmond were identified in an environmental report for the $2.8 billion East Link project. But Sound Transit officials told Bellevue in 2009 they had decided instead to locate a major rail yard south of Seattle and store a limited number of trains on the Eastside.
When sales-tax revenues collapsed in 2010, the Sound Transit Board decided to shorten the south line, eliminating the maintenance facility there, Ilgenfritz said. By the spring of 2011 — just as Sound Transit was beginning to discuss a route and cost-sharing agreement with Bellevue — a consultant said a large rail yard would be needed on the north or east line.
Sound Transit didn't tell Bellevue of its new thinking before October 2011, when transit staff was exploring "protective acquisition" of a possible rail-yard site that was up for sale: International Paper's Bel-Red property between 120th Avenue Northeast and a portion of the former BNSF Railway corridor, now owned by Sound Transit. The Sound Transit Board authorized acquisition in January 2012.
"We were very transparent about talking to our board about this stuff, but we didn't take that extra proactive step until last October to point out to the city staff what we thought the implications were," Ilgenfritz said.
City Manager Steve Sarkozy said that when Sound Transit informed him it wanted to buy the International Paper property, he didn't realize the agency was looking for such a large site. He didn't inform the City Council of the possible transaction, which has not taken place, because he didn't realize the agency was looking at building so large a rail yard.
The City Council approved an agreement with Sound Transit in November 2011. Sound Transit briefed city staff and the council on its search for a rail-yard site this past summer.
Now the transit agency and the city are at loggerheads over whether to combine discussions about the rail yard with ongoing talks about route, stations and cost.
After a very open route discussion, Sarkozy said, "How can one element of this be so hush-hush and not connected to the other? This is in our community and we're concerned about the collective impacts."
Saying the rail yard is a separate project from the East Link rail line "really seems disingenuous and not the way a partner should treat a partner," Councilwoman Robertson said.
But Councilman John Stokes doesn't think the projects necessarily have to be combined — especially if that would delay rail service. "I don't see why there would be any advantage to us delaying those things at this point unless you just don't want the light rail," he said.
Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Information in this article, originally published Nov. 23, 2012, was corrected Nov. 28, 2012. A previous version of this story misstated the month of the Sound Transit Board's vote to acquire the former International Paper distribution center.