Tomorrow, the Sound Transit board will make their determination of which East Link alignment options to move forward for further study.
But before we discuss that, I have a little “Overheard in Seattle” moment to share, and a response. At the Bellevue and Olive 545 stop one morning, a discussion was overheard about how this blog is too Eastside-oriented. I can see where this criticism comes from, but I think it’s misguided.
Transit in Seattle is solid. We have the political will to build more, and there’s a lot of room to grow around future stations. Link is already on its way from city limit to city limit. We have a streetcar plan. Ballard and West Seattle mass transit is just a matter of time.
The suburbs are where the problems are. Most of the region’s residents live outside the city, but a lot of our jobs are inside it. Commuting isn’t something that we can just change – you can’t just bulldoze everything low density, all you can do is stop building farther out and start filling in the gaps. Those commute trips are the ones that have no options, that we need to make reliable. As a result, that’s where a lot of the news is.
So today, some thoughts on Bellevue.
Last night, I was out for a bite to eat in Bellevue before heading home, and I went upstairs in one of the downtown towers to look out some windows. Downtown Bellevue is completely car-oriented. Bellevue Square is a giant plain of concrete. A stone’s throw away from the core – a mere superblock from 30 story buildings – are low density suburbs with giant lawns and cul-de-sacs. I hesitate to even call it a city yet – there are no pedestrians. All but the high-end shops and services seem to be dying off. It feels like a suburban office park that’s gone up instead of out, where most of the businesses are support for office workers.
That’s going to change, but it will take time. New residential towers have only been springing up for a couple of years. All this development is new, and it’s going to be sterile for a while as it’s broken in. It will be decades before any of this space becomes affordable for anyone but a slice of upper middle class – but some of it will. Right now, the income range is too narrow, the students, musicians, and vendors that make a city really come alive can’t live there.
And when it does come alive, when things start to diversify a little, it will need great transit.
I do think a tunnel is a good choice for downtown Bellevue. The downtown center is fragile enough right now that major surface construction could set it back decades – I’ve written before about our preference for C3T, the bored tunnel option, over the cut-and-cover tunnel. Frankly, at this point, I think that the Bellevue City Council has no clue how their city works if they’re really in favor of cut and cover. Who are they representing here?
A surface option will also move forward. Bellevue has to come up with the money for a tunnel themselves, Sound Transit will build surface if Bellevue can’t come up with enough. I’ve seen some options, and I think Bellevue can make it happen.
What’s been interesting about all of this is that the Seattle Times has come out cheering on the tunnel – and making it patently obvious, after their attacks on light rail as “too expensive”, that they’re entirely an eastside paper now. Their contradictions over the years are fun to watch. Don’t think that they’re an ally here – they don’t want a train on the street, it’s not about moving people more quickly.
Microsoft came out in favor of a surface option. It seems like they’re not entirely informed here – Sound Transit will move forward with both a surface and a tunnel option for further study. There’s risk involved in the tunnel option, but I think they’re underestimating the risk involved in trying to shove a surface option down Bellevue’s throat.
I’m not too worried about the B and D (both PDF) sections. B7 is obviously too expensive per passenger as it completely misses the South Bellevue park and ride, and negotiations about how to modify B3 aren’t really an issue this week. D will probably run on the surface through Bel-Red, as Bellevue would love to upzone that corridor and build transit oriented development.
What I’m concerned about most is which tunnel option moves forward. I think that will make or break downtown Bellevue’s ability to attract residents and small businesses in the next decade, and I think smaller cities in our region are watching to see how going up instead of out could work for them. I don’t think Bellevue can afford to tear up their city streets and risk destroying what little city diversity they have, and they can’t afford the additional risk and cost over a bored tunnel. I hope the Sound Transit board agrees tomorrow.