The Bellevue City Council voted 4-3 tonight to approve a term sheet that has agreed to offer up to $150 million in funding toward a downtown tunnel alignment with Sound Transit. The agency cannot afford the C9T alignment on its own and has said the city must provide funding if it wants a tunnel alignment. The $150 million is the most concrete step forward we’ve seen thus far on funding the tunnel alignment.
Without approval of the term sheet (pdf), the city would have committed nothing to a downtown light rail tunnel. That would have put the Sound Transit Board in a bind, and when it selected its preferred East Link alignment it would have been unlikely to move forward on the tunnel. While the Bellevue City Council overwhelmingly favors that alignment, during a contentious and late night meeting it seemed unwilling to move forward on the term sheet.
But an unexpected “yes” vote from Mayor Davidson put a narrow majority in favor of moving forward with the term sheet. The Sound Transit board will likely move forward with studying both the C9T and C11A alignments for downtown. The C11A at-grade alignment is unpopular on the council because it would run light rail on city streets, but that alignment is within the current East Link budget.
Davidson admitted after the vote to putting out “feelers” and hints that he would vote no. He seemed to struggle with his yes vote.
Some on the council seemed anxious to tie the term sheet for the downtown segment to the B segment south of downtown, with some implying their “no” vote was a statement to Sound Transit that the board must support a B7 alignment which isn’t favored regionally because of its ridership and environmental impacts. Mayor Davidson had proposed an amendment that would tie the approval of the term sheet to early design on B7 moving forward, but that amendment failed because the city would have had to pay for the study. Some vocal communities in Bellevue have demanded that light rail run far away from their homes and a majority on the council support B7. That alignment does not serve the South Bellevue Park & Ride and would be costlier to connect to the downtown segment, and the Sound Transit board is unlikely to move B7 forward.
Some council members said that a week was not enough time to study the term sheet that was negotiated between city staff and Sound Transit staff. Some also argued that the Sound Transit Board will recognize the city council’s commitment to a tunnel even without a formal term sheet moving negotiations forward.
With these negative arguments, some councilmembers seemed resigned to a losing vote. Councilmember Balducci had asked the council just to get the vote over with since she could see how the “winds are shifting,” just minutes before she unexpectedly prevailed in the majority.
City staff recommended the council adopt the term sheet. The term sheet is not binding and a final alignment will not be selected until Spring 2011 when East Link’s environmental impact statement is finalized.