After nearly two years of effort, including a unique best practices project, the City Council Monday selected a preferred light rail route through Bellevue, part of a regional transit system expected to serve Puget Sound for the next century.
The decision came two days before the Feb. 25 deadline for comments on a draft environmental review of East Link, the Sound Transit project to extend light rail from Seattle, across Lake Washington, through Bellevue and on to the Overlake area of Redmond. Council Letter
In narrowing their choices to one alternative for each of three route segments running through Bellevue, Council members focused on a handful of priorities, including:
- Building a regional transit system that connects the area's three largest employment centers: downtown Seattle, downtown Bellevue and Microsoft's main campus in Redmond.
- Utilizing a light rail route, including a downtown tunnel, that supports "smart growth" policies aimed at concentrating development in urban areas.
- Protecting neighborhoods and commercial districts from impacts during and after construction of East Link.
- Choosing a route that maximizes ridership while minimizing travel times.
- Providing a fast, reliable and environmentally friendly alternative to solo driving.
"East Link is a 100-year investment that ultimately will be a defining feature for our community," Mayor Grant Degginger said. "We are committed to working closely with Sound Transit to ensure the city's preferred route is built, and the full potential of the East Link project is realized for the region."
Council members were unanimous in their choice for a tunnel to serve the city's rapidly growing downtown area. The tunnel would run west on Main Street from 112th Avenue, then north on 106th Avenue Northeast, then east on Northeast Sixth Street underneath the city's transit center.
"The tunnel is an absolute necessity," Degginger said. "If light rail is built on surface streets, we believe the downtown area could become a chokepoint for the entire East Link system.
"We simply do not have right of way available in the downtown core for an at-grade alignment. We are identifying cost savings on the Bellevue segment and look forward to continuing this effort with Sound Transit."
The Council also agreed that the preferred route should run from the transit center northeast through the Bel-Red corridor to Overlake, traveling at-grade and elevated along a newly created Northeast 16th Street. The route would be compatible with the city's historic land use decisions for the area, which focus on attractive transit-oriented development that generates jobs and supports growth management and environmental stewardship.
Council members struggled with choosing a preferred route that would run from Interstate 90 north to downtown, saying the alternatives outlined in the draft environmental review needed more detailed analysis.
Ultimately a council majority supported a hybrid route not included in the environmental review. The route would run from I-90 north along the east side of Bellevue Way, then along the east side 112th Avenue to about Southeast Eighth Street, where it would veer northeast to 114th Avenue, then north to Main Street.
"We feel this hybrid route will best address our neighborhood, traffic and environmental concerns," Degginger said. "We'll work closely with Sound Transit over the next few months to more fully evaluate the segment and make sure the design of the route accomplishes our goals."
Sound Transit's Board of Directors will make their route preference known in April. The Board's ultimate decision is expected in mid-2010, following completion of a final environmental impact statement.
In choosing their preferred route, Council members took into account extensive public input. Interest in East Link has been high during the 75-day public comment period for the draft environmental review, which began Dec. 12.
Sound Transit held two out of its five public meetings on East Link in Bellevue, and the City Council held its own public hearing. In all, more than 500 people attended the three meetings and 126 people made formal comments on the DEIS. Council members also received several hundred e-mails on the topic.
Another important source of public input was the city's Light Rail Best Practices Project, an ambitious, year-long effort by a council-appointed committee to study light rail systems in comparable cities and apply the lessons learned in Bellevue.
Degginger said Bellevue is a leader in accommodating regional growth, pointing out the downtown population is expected to hit 14,000 residents and 63,000 workers by 2020, when East Link is scheduled to begin service.
"We look forward to continued collaboration with Sound Transit to find cost savings and additional funding, so that a route that meets the long-term needs of the region can be built," Degginger said. "We don't want to cut corners now with a lower-cost, lower-performing alternative. We need to think about the future of the region, about building a top-notch system for our children and grandchildren."
For more information, or to comment on the environmental review, visit the East Link web page.
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