An East Link tunnel won't choke off Bellevue downtown
Sound Transit should decide to study the feasibility of a tunnel in Bellevue for its East Link line, writes Bellevue Mayor Grant Degginger. A street-level alignment would wreak havoc on the city's business and commuting patterns.
Special to The Times
GOOD public-policy decisions are predicated on good information. But how do you know when you have enough information to make the best decision?
That's the challenge facing the Sound Transit board of directors as its gets ready to vote on the next planning phase for East Link, the 18-mile light-rail extension that will operate from Seattle to Bellevue and on to Redmond.
On Thursday, the board is expected to decide whether preliminary engineering studies should focus solely on a street-level alignment as the route of choice in downtown Bellevue, or if two tunnel options also being discussed deserve further study.
On behalf of the entire Bellevue City Council, I can say we're looking forward to having light rail on the Eastside. We have waited decades for this opportunity. However, it's imperative Sound Transit's board conduct additional engineering study on both tunnel options, especially with regard to costs, benefits and impacts of each.
While the street-level alignment option may appear most attractive because of its lower construction costs, information suggests the route may be seriously flawed.
In fact, the council, Bellevue Chamber of Commerce and Bellevue Downtown Association believe the street-level alignment under consideration could undermine the reliability and performance of the entire East Link line and choke buses, trucks, cars and emergency vehicles in the downtown area.
Consider these major potential drawbacks to the street-level alignment option:
• Downtown Bellevue already faces major traffic-congestion challenges, the result of a street grid that is smaller than most cities; being chronically underserved by transit; and by our success in becoming a major urban center supporting tens of thousands of jobs. Operating light rail on a street-level alignment would compromise travel times and the reliability for an East Link line running both east and west, including the Microsoft campus in Redmond, and add to local and regional congestion woes;
• Conflicts between light rail and vehicular traffic at two of Bellevue's major arterials — Northeast Fourth and Northeast Eighth streets — could create major backups onto Interstate 405, which already faces severe mobility challenges;
• The ability for drivers to access garages in some downtown high-rises containing businesses and condominiums could be either eliminated or severely compromised.
In Seattle, the need to run regional light rail underground to avoid these very problems has long been evident. And a citizens panel appointed by the Bellevue council last year to study light rail in other cities found some cities with at-grade systems wishing in hindsight they had built a tunnel to separate rail from street conflicts.
In San Jose, for example, critics of that city's light-rail line contend a tunnel would have been a better choice because the at-grade alignment has created a traffic choke point in their downtown, hampering operations along their entire light-rail line and limiting future expansion possibilities.
Ultimately, East Link must be built to deliver fast, reliable and punctual service to the greatest possible number of riders throughout the Sound Transit system. To accomplish this, it must be compatible with downtown Bellevue's existing transportation systems.
Bellevue is committed to partnering with Sound Transit to fund a tunnel segment for East Link. We look forward to creating a finance plan that includes direct investments by the city, pursues federal funding opportunities and identifies where project savings can be made. But choosing the route that best meets the city's land-use goals, stands the best chance of mitigating impacts to the downtown and the neighborhoods, and offers the best value requires more engineering analysis. A small investment today could save tens of millions later.
East Link is a 100-year investment. It must be built right the first time. By spending the time needed to collect additional information on tunnel options, we can be confident of not making a choice we will later regret.Grant Degginger is mayor of Bellevue.
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.