With our extensive and ongoing coverage of East Link planning, we get plenty of confused comments about the background, alignments, and our commentary more often than we’d like. So I’ve decided to create a “brief” rundown summary on where we’ve gotten with East Link, what is yet to be done and our thoughts on the more transit-friendly (or unfriendly) alignments (with many many links attached). If you’re already an expert on the matter, you won’t learn much below, but constructive discussion is always welcome in the comments.
East Link, the extension of Link Light Rail to the Eastside to Overlake (Redmond), was passed as part of the Sound Transit 2 ballot measure in 2008. The extension will run from International District Station east along I-90, across Mercer Island, and north up Bellevue Way and 112th Ave SE into Downtown Bellevue, where it will go east through the Bel-Red Corridor and terminate at Overlake Transit Center. The entire alignment is divided into five segments, A, B, C, D, & E. Planning for the segment E extension to Downtown Redmond was funded by ST2, but not construction.
More below the jump.
A large share of our coverage has been dominated by the B and C segments, which constitute the South/West Bellevue area and Downtown Bellevue. In the original DEIS, there were a number of alignment alternatives (PDF), which has since been whittled down. As early as 2007, a vocal group of residents, mostly from the Surrey Downs neighborhood of Bellevue, has openly opposed any light rail route in the B segment other than B7, a route which would bypass the South Bellevue Park & Ride, West Bellevue neighborhoods, and instead run along the old Burlington Northern right-of-way next to I-405, producing dramatically low ridership. This opposition is ongoing and has been increasing, recently culminating in an actual non-profit group just to promote the alignment.
In early 2009, the Sound Transit Board selected preliminary preferred alignment alternatives, based on information in the DEIS. For the B segment, the Board went with an option called B3 Modified (B3M), which would have ran trains up Bellevue Way from I-90, right at the fork up 112th Ave SE, and then curve away toward I-405 to avoid neighborhood impacts before curving back around to enter the downtown segment. For the C segment, the Board selected a C4A at-grade downtown route, with a costly C3T tunnel as a backup if the City of Bellevue agreed to identify revenue sources to help fund the tunnel. A map of these original preferred segments is shown below.
About a month earlier in March, the City of Bellevue also selected preferred alternatives (this is merely a recommendation, not a decision that can override Sound Transit’s preferences), also going with the B3 Modified alignment for South Bellevue, but selecting a C2T tunnel for downtown (see map of the original preferred alternative here (PDF)– note that the northern elevated section of the B segment just south of downtown curves away and back toward 112th). Bellevue has unanimously and consistently favored a downtown tunnel over time, arguing for its ability to avoid chokepoints, both for cars on surface streets and light rail trains.
A large political shakeup occurred in November of 2009, when the four candidates (two incumbents, two freshmen) running against ST’s preferred route for Bellevue city council were elected. Many votes were supported by heavy campaigning and contributions from not only the aforementioned B7 supporters, but well-known transit critic and Bellevue developer Kemper Freeman. All four have strongly favored a B7 alignment and a downtown tunnel, repeatedly citing the need to “protect homes and roads.” Because the council only consists of seven members, the four councilmembers have had a majority quorum.
Over the past several months, a number of new alternatives have been proposed. Prior to the November elections, Kevin Wallace, an Eastside developer who was running for city council at the time, unveiled a so-called “Vision Line” downtown alignment that would have led trains to stop at a main station next to I-405, a few superblocks outside of the downtown core. ST and Bellevue studied this, along with a few other new alternatives, in a concept design report. Not surprisingly, Wallace’s Vision Line fared the worst in terms of ridership and walkshed coverage.
The concept design report also contained a new tunnel alternative that would be shorter and less costly than the original C2T and C3T tunnels. Out of all the alignments, we endorsed two in an open letter, the shorter C9T tunnel and C11A, a surface alternative. The report also identified that the extra costs associated with the tunnel could further be offset by savings with the B segment. A B2M alignment, which would run up 112th Ave SE (thus eliminating the curve in B3M), would make the tunnel more financially feasible.
Lo and behold, earlier this year, the Sound Transit Board updated its preferred alternative (see map here) to match these preferences. However, with a new council majority, the City of Bellevue changed its preferred alternative from B3M in South Bellevue to B7, and from C2T in downtown to C9T. This all despite the fact that B7 would not be financially compatible with a downtown tunnel. Ironically, the City of Bellevue agreed to a non-binding “term sheet” in which the city ensured its commitment to work with ST to reduce tunnel costs and commit to partial funding.
With B2M as Sound Transit’s current preferred alternative, the agency recently had a lengthy community outreach process on deciding which 112th Ave SE alignment would work best. A coalition of stakeholders has since come forward in promoting a side-running (west-side) alignment, which became the ST Board’s preferred option just last week. Still, the four-member Bellevue city council majority has not budged on B7, despite the alignment’s numerous challenges detailed in the city’s own consultant reports. And even still, the project has been battered by loud and continuous NIMBY opposition along with other legal challenges.
Nonetheless, under Washington State Law, East Link is characterized as an ‘essential public facility’, which allows Sound Transit to avoid such legal and political obstacles in building light rail. A supplemental DEIS studying the newer alignment alternatives is to be released later this year, and the Final EIS to be released next year, which will inform Sound Transit’s final preferred alternative decision. Service is slated to start by 2020 or 2021.