I ran into Bellevue Deputy Mayor Conrad Lee Sunday morning and took the opportunity to ask him some crucial questions about East Link. He was appointed to the position of Deputy Mayor just last week and replaces Claudia Balducci, who was recently appointed to the Sound Transit Board by Dow Constantine. With the new balance of power in the city council favoring more conservative councilmembers, Bellevue’s preferred alternative is likely to change quite drastically from the alignment chosen last year. Lee has supported PRT (personal rapid transit) and other issues that we’ve raised questions about in the past.
Below are some paraphrased quotes from notes I took of the interview. I have a breakdown of Lee’s responses along with an outline of some arguments we’ve made in regards to his proposals.
More after the jump.
STB: Kevin Wallace’s “Vision Line” is a point of contention among the transit community, and many people I’ve talked to are concerned about the distance factor of the main station. What are your opinions of his proposal?
Conrad Lee: I support Wallace’s alignment. I understand your concerns and acknowledge that it’s pointless to build something if there will be no riders. But we don’t really know exactly where the station will be. What we need to do is build better connections [system] downtown. It doesn’t matter where the station will be; you can get from Point A to Point B, but the question is how you will get people from the train to their destination. I’m sure people are willing to walk, but we need to make these features pedestrian friendly. Think about it. Technology is unlimited these days. You can use any kind of vision to move people.
STB: Are you referring to the concept of a moving sidewalk?
Lee: Sure, a moving sidewalk. Anything really. We could even build a river and shuttle people on gondolas through downtown. It it means building skybridges or digging tunnels to get people to their destinations, then we should consider anything that will help people move around downtown. You’re not going to drive around downtown. It takes ten minutes to get from one end of the other, considering road conditions and traffic conditions. Half your time will be spent trying to find parking.
STB: Considering the fact that the council is a little bit different than last year, will a new preferred alternative be selected soon?
Lee: Sound Transit has been pushing the council to move forward on East Link, so we’ll probably select one in the next few months.
STB: I had an email exchange with councilmember Jennifer Robertson, who was on the Bellevue Light Rail Best Practices Committee. She said that in talking with the voters, most prefer a downtown tunnel. The Bellevue Reporter had a poll a few months ago, albeit unscientific, asking if voters would support a tax for a light rail tunnel. The vast majority of respondents said yes. You ran on a campaign heavily emphasizing limited taxation, but if voters were willing, would you consider a tax for a tunnel?
Lee: Of course. Bellevue is a city that has a relatively higher income and is better off than most communities. If residents are willing to pay more, then we’ll support that. But why spend extra money for the sake of spending money? We could be using it to better build these connections downtown. I think we need something like a personal rapid transport system, something that will be reliable and dependable and can take you to your destination.
An at-grade alignment is unacceptable. It would destroy downtown. That’s why we wanted a tunnel. But why spend money on a tunnel when you can get something as good for less the cost? What can a tunnel give you that something like Wallace’s alignment can’t? We should really be focused on building up a system to move people to and from the station.
Lee talked at great length about the idea of improving pedestrian connections to get people from a “Vision Line” station to their downtown destinations. It was evident that things were high enough up in the air that it didn’t preclude ideas like a skybridge and pedestrian tunnel, in addition to PRT and a gondola river shuttle (which is probably more tongue-in-cheek than we like to think). On a more serious note, Lee seemed genuinely adamant about making these connector modes pedestrian friendly. While it’s certainly a principle warmly embraced here at STB and throughout the transit community, there are questions about the application. It was interesting to hear him expound on a number of what sounded like very costly ideas while at the same time lauding the lower expenses of Wallace’s alignment.
Lee’s heavy emphasis on such a connector system almost makes it a red herring to propagate the Wallace alignment by side-stepping the real question of where light rail is going to go downtown. Downtown Bellevue does need a better city center transport network, but Sound Transit’s goal of building a tunnel or at-grade through the core does not preclude building a secondary feeder transit system. There’s plenty of time to plan and fight over something like that.
Contrary to what Lee said, it’s quite important that we consider the placement of a main station, as we have mentioned before. After all, this is what the entire East Link battle is all about in its current state. If anything, a connector system would fare much better with a high-capacity light rail station in the downtown core. Unlike the “vision” of Wallace’s proposal, the concept of a downtown transit network radiating from a station in the core has a more practical planning purpose, because you’re helping to maintain a walkshed in all directions.
Ultimately, it will come down to what Bellevue residents are willing to do to ensure the council is moving in a direction that best serves the city now, in 2050, and beyond. Those who criticize major infrastructure projects against practical planning principles are often more likely to speak up and tend to crowd out pro-transit voices, creating a disproportionate and false representation of what constituents really want.