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Originally published Saturday, April 20, 2013 at 6:41 PM

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Decision time here for Bellevue light-rail design

After years of debate about Sound Transit’s light-rail line in Bellevue, the City Council and the Sound Transit board will decide this week which options — some of them still controversial — to take to final design.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Years of seemingly endless debate about whether to operate future light-rail trains at ground level through South Bellevue, and whether to relocate a station away from a downtown tunnel, are about to end.

The Bellevue City Council is scheduled to vote Monday, and the Sound Transit Board Thursday, on which options to carry forward to final design.

All of the choices are fraught with difficult trade-offs, and neighbors oppose cost-saving options they fear would magnify noise from the trains.

Disputes over light rail have dominated Bellevue politics since voters approved expansion of Sound Transit’s system more than four years ago, sparking personal confrontations at City Council meetings, conflict-of interest investigations, lawsuits and neighborhood protests.

The intensity of conflicts among council members has subsided since the council and Sound Transit agreed on the route of the rail line and funding of a downtown tunnel.

A majority of council members favors moving what is expected to be the Eastside’s busiest station from the planned downtown Bellevue rail tunnel beneath 110th Avenue Northeast to a less expensive Northeast Sixth Street location, just outside the tunnel.

But members are more divided over the impassioned pleas of two neighborhoods to put the trains in trenches rather than on the surface along parts of Bellevue Way Southeast and 112th Avenue Southeast.

As one neighborhood leader recently told the council, ground-level trains would mean excessive noise “all day and all night long forever into the future.”

Sound Transit’s $2.8 billion East Link rail line will connect Seattle, Mercer Island, Bellevue and Redmond’s Overlake area, with service slated to begin in a decade.

Bellevue and Sound Transit have agreed to split the cost of the $320 million downtown tunnel — which wasn’t funded in the voter-approved 2008 plan — and are working together to find cost savings.

Moving the downtown station to Northeast Sixth Street has garnered strong support from most council members because it could cut costs by as much as $33 million and, they say, create a new downtown gathering site and a more visible downtown rail presence.

The Bellevue Downtown Association, Transportation Choices Coalition and Move Bellevue Forward favor a tunnel station, saying the Northeast Sixth Street location could depress ridership because it wouldn’t be fully enclosed and would be slightly farther from a cluster of skyscrapers and Bellevue Square.

One design change has won nearly universal approval. Instead of a large rail structure to bridge 112th Avenue, the road would be raised less obtrusively above a surface rail line.

The latest numbers show it will be difficult for Bellevue to hit the goal of reducing its bill for the rail tunnel by $60 million — particularly if the City Council opts for trenches along parts of 112th Avenue and Bellevue Way.

Activists in the Enatai and Surrey Downs neighborhoods have fiercely fought for the trenches.

Citing unexpectedly noisy Sound Transit trains in Seattle and Tukwila, residents say trenches would help dampen the sound of the trains’ steel wheels and eliminate the need for warning bells at one location.

Moving Bellevue Way to accommodate a surface rail line and an HOV lane would mean cutting into the Enatai hillside and building a wall up to 40 feet high. Several council members expressed doubt about that option but weren’t united on what to do instead.

Council members are also split over whether an HOV lane is needed, or will be needed in the near future.

Keeping Southeast Fourth Street’s connection to 112th Avenue, in combination with a surface rail line, would mean an at-grade crossing and more noise from warning bells. Advocates of a trench say the at-grade crossing would also pose a risk of train collisions with cars or pedestrians.

Joe Rosmann, co-chairman of a neighborhood group, Building a Better Bellevue, told the City Council last Monday that a surface route would bring excessive noise.

“This is the disaster you told our citizens they would never have to incur as you promised extraordinary mitigation,” Rosmann said. “The trenches are that extraordinary mitigation.”

Sound Transit officials have told the City Council that noise, with or without trenches, would be within federal guidelines written to ensure that noise is no worse than what would be acceptable to the overwhelming majority of residents.

One surface-rail option would avoid the need for warning bells at Southeast Fourth Street by closing the intersection with 112th Avenue to all but emergency vehicles.

Mayor Conrad Lee and Councilmember Kevin Wallace said they are leaning toward a trench on 112th, Councilmember John Stokes against it.

“I think the trench under any circumstances is going to be more of an eyesore than anybody thinks,” Stokes said.

Councilmember Jennifer Robertson said she has seen rail trenches in other cities that “were not unappealing.” She said she opposes an at-grade rail crossing of Southeast Fourth Street and is studying noise data to help her decide if a trench is the best option on 112th.

The decisions won’t be easy, said Councilmember John Chelminiak, who favors a trench on Bellevue Way but isn’t certain about 112th Avenue. “The people who were up there (addressing the council), saying keep it in the trench, are the people I see at the grocery store, the people I see at church,” Chelminiak said.

“They literally sit in the pew behind me or in front of me. It’s hard to sit there and say I’ve got to take that out of my mind and do what’s right for the city.”

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

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