Introduction: One possible – but not guaranteed – project on the Eastside is commuter rail line that could run from roughly Snohomish to Renton, or some segment between them. The STB staff have varying opinions on the value of this line, which we fleshed out in this roundtable.

BB is Brian Bundridge, BS is Ben Schiendelman, AS is Andrew, JJ is John Jensen, and I’m MD.

MD: I think we all agree that East Link should be the highest priority on the Eastside. But right after that, the I-405 corridor’s congestion is absolutely horrible. Because the ST2 map leads me to believe that I-405 light rail is going to have to wait for ST4, I say we do something for commuters along that route in their lifetimes. Let’s get this thing built.

BB: The biggest thing with the Eastside Rail Corridor is getting the train closer to the City Core which is the biggest complaint among those who would take the service. An elevated section would however be expensive but would it be so expensive that it is prohibitive?

BS: Crossing 405 would be a 150-200m bridge, so yeah, I think it would be. And you couldn’t go elevated with heavy rail in the middle of Bellevue’s actual downtown.
The biggest issue is that you’d have to rip out and replace the trackbed along the entire corridor – that’s a couple hundred million, there’s no ballast. Then you’d have to shore a lot of the corridor up against slides. I actually went out and took pictures near Woodinville – there are a fair number of slides visible from the not too distant past.
You’d need platforms, equipment, another 100 million. Then you’d upgrade all the crossings or the cities would say no way – another 100 million. It goes through Totem Lake diagonally next to a large intersection – intersecting two streets there. Upgrades there alone would probably cost you a good ten million. The park and ride necessity to get any ridership would cost you another hundred million.
The thing is, this money would do a lot of more cost effective things for the eastside. The rail corridor simply isn’t the best bang for the buck with that money – you could spend it on more bus service (seriously) and get two or three times the riders per dollar. Sound Transit banked east king money last time because they knew east link was ten times as cost effective as this – the eastside rail contingent didn’t even start to speak up until ST2 was on the ballot, even though they’ve had ten years of BNSF trying to sell that corridor.

AS: Ben is right about the costs of the Eastside BNSF Corridor. On a trip through the Eastside in April, we saw a slew of spots where the train speeds were limited to 20 mph and even sometimes as low as 10 or 15
mph, the Totem Lake double-crossing comes to mind. Those areas require track upgrades that could cost well into the hundreds of millions.
The one big slight on the routing of the track is that it doesn’t go through downtown Bellevue. The common response is that it goes very close, and that the future of downtown Bellevue will be on that side of 405. I cannot see this happening until after ST2 gets built and a station connecting the BNSF track to Link is put in place. At that time, the Eastside Corridor becomes viable. It would connect job centers in Kirkland, Bellevue and Renton with residential centers in Kingsgate, Totem Lake, Kirkland and Newcastle/Kennydale.
The criticism that the rich people whose backyards the tracks go through will oppose the trains is valid, but the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. In whole I think that the Eastside BNSF corridor can be a working rail transit corridor, though I believe we need ST2 in place first to make it work.

BS: And with ST2 in place, the cost of the eastside rail corridor would be better spent on connecting Overlake to downtown Redmond, so that ST3 could start building more in the 405 corridor.

AS: Imagining the exact same cost, I’d say connecting Kirkland to Overlake Hospital is more important than connecting DT Redmond to Overlake, though I bet LRT to Redmond would be more cost effective.

BS: The ridership would be higher on DT Redmond to Overlake, because DT Redmond is upzoning and DT Kirkland isn’t.

BB: There’s also a real technical issue there. With Eastside trains running every nine minutes (as assumed in ST2 planning -Lynnwood-Sea-Tac and Northgate-FW are the other two nine minute runs, for three minute central operations and six south of downtown), you’d create a transfer at Overlake Hospital. You couldn’t split the route.

One idea that was brought up to me is the time savings of Everett – Redmond. The train would take 30 minutes at a maximum speed of 45 mph with stops at Everett, Snohomish, Woodinville Jct, Columbia Winery, Redmond Town Center.
But per BNSF, double tracking the flood plains is required.

AS: Kirkland’s not upzoning? Maybe not, but what’s this I’ve heard about Google building a campus literally next to the BNSF line?

There are several other large companies in that area also, Bungie, Clearwire, and Monolith, among others.
Kirkland also has nearly the population of Redmond (46K vs 51k) in less than half the area. (4220/sq mi compared to 1220 sq mi). A fair bit of that population density for Redmond is already served by the Overlake TC station.
The Kirkland BNSF corridor is a good bang-for-your-buck rail because it cuts right through the employment centers, as well as the residential centers.

BS: Monolith is at the S. Kirkland Park and Ride, and has about 100 employees (I worked there during the SOE buyout). Bungie’s got 40 (again, I worked with them during Halo). Clearwire might be 100. Downtown Redmond has 4-500 MS employees alone at Redmond Town Center, and there are a couple of office buildings there that we don’t have either. Downtown Redmond is seriously upzoning – they just made plans

to turn another downtown parking lot into 5 stories, and the town center is looking at developing the east parking lot (by Claim Jumper) and/or tearing down an existing parking lot to replace it with an office building, and building a larger semi-underground garage.

The business park in east Kirkland really just doesn’t cut it. You don’t have any high density residential, and those are your prime users – MS employees and Bellevue DT employees. Connecting to that Kirkland business park doesn’t add much because you don’t have good residential on the line in a decent distance.

MD: That’s Part I. There’s more to come as the conversation continues…

23 Replies to “Eastside Commuter Rail Roundtable: Part I”

  1. I have a question:

    Is it possible to route a possible Eastside commuter rail service from Snohomish through the tracks along Willows Road (as opposed to the narrow, winding section through Kirkland and Bellevue) to Downtown Redmond where passengers could connect with East Link to get to Microsoft, Bellevue, and maybe Seattle?

    1. Yes, It would be possiable to run service (DMU, Heavy Rail) from Snohomish (or even Everett, with BNSF’s blseeing) through Woodinville and allong the Willows segment to Redmond. In doing this, and not using the Bellevue, Kirkland, Woodinville segment of the ESR, you would have no through service from north to south (when/if the bridge is replaced at the Wilberton crossing). an alternative would be to run rail suitable for freight/commuter rail from Redmond to North Bellevue allong 520 (simular to the ST planed rout from Bellevue to Redmond) reconnecting the two segments, and tehn using the Bellevue, Kirkland, Woodinville segment for Light rail. One other future option for Redmond would be to remove teh East Lake Sammamish corridor from Railbank, and run tracks from Redmond to Issiquah (this could be light or commuter class service.

  2. Great discussion.

    Another question. We’re an innovative group/region/country/species. Can we think of another way of connecting eastside rail to downtown Bellevue other than a bridge carrying a heavy train? I’ll try not to point anything out that’s crazy, but let’s say a tunnel with a people-mover or a Disneyland-style gondola.

    It’s not like rail is that far from the transit center. I vote for underground tunel with people-mover.

    1. For the time being it should be easy to re-route the 550 to end over there. It already makes a loop up to NE 12th, so you could just have it take the NE 12th bridge over 405.

      It’s too bad that a tunnel under 405 would (probably) be really expensive. Maybe a streetcar, continuing after the transit center along NE 6th to Bellevue Square.

  3. In my dream world Bellevue would have a two stop tunnel underground for EastLink, and the stop at the transit center would have a linkup via tunnel with the BNSF corridor. It could come up from the south, route through a tunnel to DT, then use the Overlake rails until it split off there to head north.

  4. I think that it will be good to have this commuter rail right now, and maybe in the future we can connect it to the sounder line and have it go all the way to Tacoma. However, in the future, it will be good to have a light rail line along the 405 corridor that can go right to the heart of the downtowns along the way. And speaking of the eastside, does anyone know if the just-approved ST2 plan will have East Link in a tunnel in DT Bellevue? I sure hope it does. If we don’t put it in a tunnel know, we’ll just end up putting it in a tunnel in 30 years. Just look at how many of New York’s subway lines used to be Els.

    1. They haven’t decided yet. The current plan includes funding for an aerial ROW through Bellevue, but that could be a tunnel if Bellevue wants one. It would need more money, though.

      Personally, I think the streets in Bellevue are wide enough that an elevated line wouldn’t be very disruptive or problematic.

  5. A few comments-

    I grew up on the Eastside. If you’re seeing the 405 going to any ‘city centers’ other than Woodinville and Renton, those were created during the past 30 years- a process that will happen again when a new transportation corridor (aka light rail line) is developed.

    As a freight line, the BNSF line has served some large industrial parcels that are still being held off the market pending ‘developments’. This is exactly where, in the built environment, you find large enough parcels to support TOD. Think Pearl District.

    Frankly, the Washington DOT pulled a smash-and-grab to get rid of the rail bridge over the 405 at Wilburton without paying for a replacement. Considering the inevitable intersection (i.e., transfer station) of an east-west Link and the north-south BNSF line somewhere, it would be incredibly stupid not to keep that line intact from Renton to Snohomish.

    Because the rail grades are moderate, bicycle/pedestrian paths on both sides of the rail line would be an excellent way for people to get to the stations. You would just ride towards the rail line until you reached the path and then turn to ride towards the nearest station.

    Finally, comparing the capital cost of building a rail line to the operations cost of adding new buses is wrong. So very wrong.

    1. Confused. Grew up on the eastside, but he says “the 405”. Kaleci wonders where this eastside is. :P~

      1. Like the rest of the eastside, I’ve been californicated…

        My first elementary school was Factoria, a chunky two-story building that, against all odds, eventually did become a factory. Life imitating art.

  6. “Crossing 405 would be a 150-200m bridge, so yeah, I think it would be. And you couldn’t go elevated with heavy rail in the middle of Bellevue’s actual downtown.”

    East Link in downtown Bellevue is seriously being considered as elevated…That’s what ST says the cost estimates for East Link include.

    As for the commuter rail, I think ST mentioned that although there won’t be a direct station downtown, there’ll be one adjacent to the Bel-Red link station for easy transfers (just like King Street is next to the bus tunnel).

  7. the Woodinville subdivision ROW could be connected with the BTC via an elevated wye over NE 6th Street.

    the key question is the level of service on the Woodinville subdivision: one-way peak-only or frequent two-way all-day? If the former, an elevated connection to downtown Bellevue may not be worthwhile. If the latter, the service could become a reliable transit spine for the Eastside. With tolling on I-405, I-90, and SR-520, arterials may become more congested and the freeways less congested. The Woodinville subdivision service would complement the faster service on the freeways.

    the close connection to Totem Lake, Kirkland, South Kirkland, Overlake Hospital, and downtown Renton are key advantages of the ROW.


    BS is correct: it would take several hundred million to provide good service on the corridor.

    ST2 awaits an affirmative vote and 12 years of planning and construction.

  8. I just don’t see why this is framed in such all or nothing terms. Two of the proposed East Link alignments run an at-grade alignment right down the BNSF right-of-way adjacent to Overlake. Build a third platform at Overlake station, and you can have a simple transfer to a shuttle train heading north to Kirkland or Totem Lake.

    Add simple stations at Northrup & Carrilon Point with passing tracks, and you can keep the rest of the line single track and still achieve good headways. Add a mile of single track looping through downtown Kirkland, and you serve a pretty dense little urban core.

    Eventually, add another loop to circulate around Totem Lake, and you’re connecting a major job and transit center to the rail network.

    With mostly single track and some streetcar size diesel rolling stock, the capital outlay is modest. No overhead wires to despoil anyone’s suburban dream. Eventually, the line could go beyond Overlake and fulfill Bellevue’s dream of a streetcar, providing local circulation on both ends and an express trip in between.

    The rest of the line is more problematic, but I find it questionable to tell Eastsiders they need to wait for ST4 so we can build $100m a mile elevated track along 405 when this existing track comes so close to Totem Lake and DT Kirkland.

  9. When I go down to California and visit the Sprinter DMU service, this would give a telling chime as to what the Eastside would and should be like.

    We DO NOT need to double track the entire corridor for superior passenger service, especially if it is only rush hour runs. The Sprinter is an all day service running every 30 minutes. This would probably be the best example of DMU service in the United States. When Portland comes on this Fall it too will be another example of what a totally refurbished rail corridor will look like.

    For more information regarding the Sprinter…

    Official website for Sprinter

    And one of the best video introductions to Sprinter

  10. “the I-405 corridor’s congestion is absolutely horrible.”

    Not being a rail fetishist, I guess it’s left to me to ask if I see the proof that a 405 corridor rail line will significantly relieve 405’s congestion?

    1. It’ll relieve it just as well as any other potential solution in the same price range.

      The point isn’t to solve the congestion, the point is to provide an alternative, whose on-time performance is completely independent of whatever’s going on on the freeway.

    2. It will provide the same relief as adding more lanes, but at a fraction of the capital costs. Trying to outbuild congestion is a fool’s errand.

    3. The rail line relieves the congestion for the people who ride the trains. If you ride the train, presto!, predictable departure and arrival times.

      In our history, building roads attracts traffic until the congestion discourages use. If this history is about to be upset by rising costs of car usage, we don’t need more roads. If the history is still true, building more roads won’t even provide the congestion relief that building rail lines will.

  11. If the point is not to solve or address congestion, then don’t allude that it will, which you did subtly do here.

    “MD: I think we all agree that East Link should be the highest priority on the Eastside. But right after that, the I-405 corridor’s congestion is absolutely horrible. Because the ST2 map leads me to believe that I-405 light rail is going to have to wait for ST4, I say we do something for commuters along that route in their lifetimes. Let’s get this thing built.”

    I’m not saying you were being intentionally dishonest, but some people, still smarting from being tricked by false promises in 1996, might think otherwise.

  12. I’ll keep this short and simple.

    The overriding priority MUST be preserving the ROW. Period. Putting trains on it sooner rather than later will assure the corridor will remain intact for transit. Forget the bazillion dollars dreams. Put trains on it now.

    Also, the “all transit must go thru downtown Bellevue” theme is insane. I’ve lived on the Eastside for nearly a dozen years, and I think I’ve had a reason to go to downtown Bellevue maybe 8 times. Most 405 traffic BYPASSES the city of Bellevue. The “hub” transit model doesn’t work. Look at the airlines.

    If there was a train running to Renton, I’d personally bid on the contract for a Renton-SeaTac shuttle. I’m certain there would be THAT much demand.

Comments are closed.