by JOHN CHELMINIAK

Bellevue Councilman John Chelminiak

One of the most mentioned advantages of East Link’s B7 (cross-slough/BNSF route) is that it provides the guideway for a future connection to the Eastgate Park & Ride and Issaquah.  It’s a common theme at open houses, testimony to government boards, and a favorite talking point of the Build a Better Bellevue crowd, both citizens and Bellevue City Council members alike.  Frankly, it’s one of the few strong arguments for the BNSF route.  Build one guideway and you are ready to go east in the future.

However, the east side of the Mercer Slough is a steep ridge. It starts with 118th Ave SE, goes up to the BNSF ROW, and then climbs in a set of tiers containing the I-90 and I-405 ramps and finally I-405 itself. Standing near the BNSF right of way and looking up, it finally hit me.

You can’t get across from there.

Light rail is limited to a grade of about five percent or one vertical foot per twenty horizontal feet.  I asked city staff to look at what it would take to get light rail from the new B7-R proposed park-and-ride (A-2) in the South Enatai neighborhood across 405.  The LRT tracks would tower 153 feet above the eastern edge of the Slough to clear the freeway.  That’s the height of Bellevue’s first high-rise structure, the Paccar Building.

Diagram showing configurations for B7R to cross I-405 (click for PDF).

I then asked– could you tunnel from the proposed B7-R guideway?  There is only 330 horizontal feet from 118th Ave SE to the BNSF ROW.  Quick math says the track could descend about 15 feet, which would plow right through the ROW.  Quite the speed bump for new GNP trains!  So that would mean going back west, almost all the way across the slough, and building a second  guideway to hit the sweet spot for a tunnel portal between 118th SE and the BNSF ROW.  Oops, there’s a major Metro sewer line from the Eastside to the Renton Treatment plant buried right in that area.

The bottom line is it’s impossible to go directly east on the proposed B7 guideway.  So let’s take the Issaquah connection out of the talking points.  Using the BNSF still goes a mile-and-a-half out of the way to use a mile-and-a-quarter of railroad bed. And it still costs $140 million more than the Bellevue Way route.

Let’s concentrate on what’s already been promised: a line serving Mercer Island, South Bellevue, Downtown Bellevue, Bel-Red, Overlake and on to Redmond.  The Eastgate and Issaquah markets might be better served by an Eastside route connecting with Bellevue, Kirkland, and the Totem Lake area.  And let’s be thinking where a great transfer point would be to connect up new lines.  That’s a vision grounded in reality.

John Chelminiak is currently completing his second term on the Bellevue City Council.  He lives in the Vuecrest Neighborhood just west of downtown Bellevue.

50 Replies to “Op-Ed: B7-R Couldn’t Connect to a Future Issaquah Line”

  1. I appreciate you bringing this fascinating observation to the fore, Mr. Chelminiak. I had no idea WSDOT had such expansive future plans for the I-90/I-405 interchange, and as a B2M proponent and civil engineer I find the P&P sheet assembled by the city staff absolutely hilarious: The scope of such a connection is so far beyond a reasonable, cost-effective construction project as to be simply laughable that it’s being pushed as a B7R benefit.

    Thanks,
    Dave Honan, Issaquah

  2. Council-member,

    While I oppose the B7 alignments I have to ask, how would we get a line to points east of Bellevue? It would seem logical that it would come out of either the South Bellevue station or what ever is built instead. You’re saying that it can’t be built either way? I realize that such a thing isn’t on the drawing boards nor has funding even been approved but given the rapid expansion happening in Issaquah and Samammish, and those communities strong relationship to Bellevue and Seattle, a rail line there must be considered in the long run.

    1. This has been discussed here on the site before, but making a route through lake hills connector / richards road to eastgate could be done. it would be a pain but so would crossing the slough and from Bellevue’s POV it’s better to have all trains coming to us vs. a park and ride on the edge of town that is more focused on Seattle.

    2. Charles:
      My point is proponents of the B-7 or B7R say it will link to Eastgate and Issaquah. It won’t on this line. How it gets there will be difficult to engineer because of the ridge line AND the freeway structures. Honestly, I don’t see how it would get there from either the current P/R or the proposed Enatai P/R. You really have to look at it verically as well as horizontally. But as you point out, that is for a future decision. Important in the short to medium term (20 years?) will be transit connections and the Enatai P/R would cost ST $1 million in added operating costs each year. Buses using Enati instead of the current South Bellevue location will be delayed by several minutes. The ARUP report notes extra buses will need to be added to the routes to keep up head ways. They haven’t even caluculated the extra operational costs to Metro routes.

    3. I’m guessing the best/cheapest route through the ridge will be in the I-90 median. The highway doesn’t take too much of a grade and a flyover can connect to the East Link track and S. Bellevue P&R.

  3. Further, your suggestion of a Totem lake – Bellevue Issaquah routing would probably need to involve the BNSF ROW which most people don’t want to be anything other than a trail. Are you cooking up some grand appeasement for your opportunistic fellow council-member?

    1. Define “most people”. I think the BNSF ROW would be a fine place for LRT if it’s not going to be used for freight or commuter rail. The need for a recreational trail there isn’t great. Folks living next to the ROW might prefer bikes and peds, but they moved next to a railroad.

      As to the councilman’s point about where a good transfer station would be, Hospital Station seems ideal.

      1. aw I’m sure there were plenty of people that said the burke gilman would be a big waste of money as trail at the time….

      2. That is a bunch of hooey that the need for a trail is not great. Many bikers use the B-G today to commute and there is a great need for such a trail on the Eastside due to poor connectivity and lack of a street grid outside of downtown Bellevue. Estimates place daily ridership rivaling the B-G at 3,000/day.

      3. Where would a bike commuter want to go along the BNSF? How are the needs not met by the Sammamish River trail, the 520 trail and decent bike lanes along Lake Washington Blvd? It would make sense to have a parallel train alongside the tracks from about Main Street to Northup, but having rails + trail north of that would be challenging. The ROW south of Wilburton is probably a lost cause WRT rails; might as well convert that to the trail, and use the existing bridge for a trail crossing of I-90.

      4. s/parallel train/parallel trail/

        The point being that the ROW in that area should be wide enough to accomodate a trail plus double-tracked rail. In addition, there’s relatively easy connections to the street grid.

      5. Where would a bike commuter want to go along the BNSF?

        A reasonably gentle graded, continuous, traffic free path between Woodinville-Totem Lake-Central Kirkland/Houghton-Downtown Bellevue-Factoria-Renton that ties the local bike street grid together.

        I live in the Totem Lake area. Getting to Bellevue from North Kirkland via Redmond is a ridiculously circuitous route and the grades are not as easy as the BNSF (huge hill from Redmond to Overlake). I tried it once.

      6. @AW as someone who grew up in Kirkland and now works in Totem Lake I can assure you that I would bike significantly more if we had this trail. Kirkland has done a good job of striping bike lanes but traveling on a trail is significantly more comfortable, both because of the absence of cars and the fact that it is much flatter.

      7. Bike commuters want to go from their residence to their place of business. Saying that they could use Lake Washington Boulevard if they work in Totem Lake or Woodinville is like saying you could use I-5 if you work in Issaquah.
        This ROW also links to the Centennial Trail from Snohomish north so it would make an excellent recreational trail. Some people like to ride out of their door to the trail. Living south of I-90 in Bellevue, there are darned few off street cycling options. This ROW would be the FIRST off street alternative in that area, other than the very short connection from Coal Creek Pkwy to Newcastle Beach, which ain’t much of a ride.

      8. Well, why not do what Translink did with the SkyTrain and place trail and rail together? People say that SkyTrain was done right, so why not copy them with this issue?

    2. I think the BNSF will have to be used eventually. Think about this though: if you build Link out to Issaquah, you’d either need 1) a new OMF out east, or 2) use the one being planned for East Link. My guess it that service levels wouldn’t justify the former. So you’d have to use an East Link maintenance facility. But an easterly I-90 line that ties in with either B2M or B7 doesn’t allow trains to deadhead like that without going first to MI and switching directions. That basically spells a Issaquah-Eastgate-Bellevue line, like what the 556 does. There are some real inherent problems with connecting Seattle to Eastgate and beyond via Link.

    3. A trail and LRT could fit in much of the BNSF ROW.

      Now there is the question of which portions are most useful for LRT. NE 6th to Totem Lake is probably the most interesting with a detour to serve downtown Kirkland. Most of the ROW isn’t too bad but the slope between S Kirkland P&R and Houghton would be tricky for anything other than a trail. This might force LRT to follow I-405 between Bellevue and Kirkland which makes it even harder to properly serve Downtown Kirkland.

      South of I-90 I suspect LRT will just follow I-405 to Renton.

      1. Chris, why is the grade between S Kirkland P&R and Houghton difficult? If it worked for freight rail, LRT should have no problem. I wouldn’t expect there to be any station stops between the P&R and NE 68th St. In Kirkland, it looks like it would be relatively easy to divert to 6th St., then go along NE 85th to rejoin the ROW. See map. This puts it east of Park Place, about 3 blocks from the TC. Inconvenient, but not very disruptive.

  4. The argument here is that a tunnel is a non-starter because it severs the BNSF ROW. I don’t think this is much of an argument because the BNSF ROW is already severed by the lack of a tunnel underneath 405, and I’ve not heard anyone seriously propose fixing that. I think that using the BNSF ROW to further passenger rail in the region is a perfectly good use of that land. Besides, in the future most people want a recreational trail along there, which could trivially made a detour around/above the tunnel portal.

    I think a more valid argument against this alignment is you’d probably want a Bellevue – Issaquah line to cross 405 though a tunnel on the SOUTH side of I-90, to be able to serve Factoria. Factoria is a huge employment (TMobile) and shopping center, and it would be really silly to have a good light rail line skip it. The rail could cross over I-90 from the SBelluve P&R station, go to the Factoria Station, and then cross back over I-90 to serve a station at Eastgate/Bellevue College. This would not be helped by the B-7 alignment.

    1. I expect it would actually not have a Factoria stop, but only an Eastgate stop. Stopping at both Factoria and Eastgate would mean a denser stop spacing than they’re using outside of the urban core – they seem to be going about every 3 miles or so, and that would be 1.5 miles. The soon-to-be 241 would serve as a local circulator through Factoria between Eastgate and South Bellevue stations.

      However, if the Issaquah line does NOT serve South Bellevue, but heads northwest to DT Bellevue, a Factoria stop would replace all the bus transfers at S. Bellevue.

      None of the currently proposed alignments are ideal for an Issaquah expansion. B2M doesn’t help, but at least doesn’t get in the way. All the B7 options actively obstruct an Issaquah line running on the north side of the freeway, which is where all the available land for a line is. Running on the south side, there’s substantial development right up to the side of the freeway. That leaves very little room to build a line, much less a station (unless you tunnel the line under the 405 interchange, and then pop out to an elevated station, built over the top of 36th – tricky to say the least).

      1. It should stop in Factoria. Cause we always talk about stop spacing and everything, but the reality is light rail should just stop where it makes sense, and it makes sense to stop at both Factoria and Eastgate. Then you might not stop for several miles beyond Eastgate since there’s not much there.

      2. Stop spacing has to be weighed against the size of the destinations and the centrality of the segment. If people are coming from out of the area — more than just those who live there — it’s a good argument for an extra station. Likewise, stations at the end of lines or on secondary lines matter less than stations in the central core. A lot of people are going through the area between Northgate-SeaTac and Seattle-Bellevue. So too many stations there reduce the functionality of the system. One or two infill stations like Graham and 133rd would be OK, but not several more. Likewise, the usefulness of the South Bellevue Station has to be weighed against the fact that it’s another stop.

        But at the ends of lines like Redmond, or short lines like Ballard, or lower-usage lines like Issaquah, there can be more stations because it only affects people in the immediate vicinity, not those who are passing through the area on their way to elsewhere.

  5. Just a little side note:

    Sound transit allows up to 4% grade for unlimited lengths. They allow up to 6% grade for up to a 2500′ length between PVIs. They allow up to 7% for up to a 500′ length between PVIs.

  6. “The bottom line is it’s impossible to go directly east on the proposed B7 guideway. So let’s take the Issaquah connection out of the talking points.”
    That worries me anytime somebody says ‘it’s impossible’ to do something. I could articulate a routing to Issaquah along I-90, but would require some lanes from WSDOT across the slough (a non starter), and an engineering study to say the peat bog isn’t a problem (also a non starter), so I won’t even bother – but impossible it is not, just impracticable.
    If I were Issaquah, BCC, Eastgate, or Factoria, I’d be pissed off that the only HCT being considered are buses, now shoehorned onto narrowed lanes of a very congested HOV route across the bridge.

    1. I’m willing to bet HCT to Issaquah will be in ST3 along with segment E to downtown Redmond of East Link.

      That said I believe service along I-90 actually improves with R8A as the HOV lanes will now be 2-way and continuous from Seattle to Issaquah.

  7. Thanks for bringing the straight talk on this. Also, thanks for publicly highlighting the delays and increased costs both ST and Metro will incur as a result of the A-2 station design.

  8. Using the BNSF still goes a mile-and-a-half out of the way to use a mile-and-a-quarter of railroad bed. And it still costs $140 million more than the Bellevue Way route.

    Well put.

  9. The easiest and probably least expensive route to connect Eastlink to Issiquah, would be to use the county owned Rail Banked ROW from Redmond allong the East side of Lake Sammamish to Issiquah.
    The downside is that it will not hit any population zones where a station would be appropriate between Redmond and Issiquah (all though MS would probably love a station at thier Lake Sammamish bldgs.
    this route could be extended north from Redmond allong the Redmond spur of the BNSF to Woodinville and into Bothell as well ;)

    1. That would never fly: NIMBYs along the lake would freak out about having a double-track light rail line blow through their back yards, and a rider from Issaquah (not “Issiquah”) who wants to go to Bellevue or Seattle should not be forced to travel some 15 miles via Redmond when a direct Issy-Bellevue route is barely half that length. Such a route would also fail to serve Eastgate & Bellevue College. Also, there’s no way it’s going to be cheaper to mitigate nearly 10 miles of lake-side running as compared to running overland, not to mention you’d have to build the ROW wide enough to retain the existing trail.

      1. 1) Forget about the NIMBY’s on the E. Lake Sammamish ROW. Given the amount of complaining (and litigation) they did to try and stop it being converted from freight rail to a trail back in the 90’s, they’ll obviously celebrate it being changed back to rail

        2) It’d be a better Issaquah-Overlake route than an I-90 alignment. I’m not sure how much ridership will be headed to Overlake vs. Bellevue, but I’m betting it’s a pretty even match.

        3) Given the slim likelihood of freight rail ever going to Issaquah again, it would probably be cheaper for them to simply promise to convert one of the tracks to shared-use if the need ever arises, rather than preserve a trail. I that’s roughly the same tack the B7R study takes regarding the lack of a trail; it still satisfies all the railbanking requirements.

        I agree about the importance of Eastgate, though. At this stage, I lean towards an I-90 alignment myself (even though in general freeway alignments are the devil). I just don’t want to discount the possibility of using the E. Lake Sammamish BNSF ROW before ridership demands have been studied. If we’re talking Issaquah / Redmond / Totem Lake / Kirkland, it makes sense. If we’re talking Issaquah / Eastgate / Bellevue / Seattle, it doesn’t.

      2. Re Lack Thereof’s…

        1) I was a teenager in Upstate New York in the ’90s, so I have no knowledge of what went on after BN abandoned the line; from a practical matter, though, I can see those folks preferring nothing over converting the ab’d railroad to a multi-use trail. My college senior capstone project was the design of an 18-mile trail in a long-abandoned rail corridor in western Indiana which had quite a bit of NIMBY response from the rural folks who didn’t want strangers traipsing alongside/through their properties.

        2) I grant you the Issy-Overlake route… but really, as you say in your last paragraph, a study of where the majority of riders would be traveling is needed to determine the most effective route. Given how packed Issy TC is every weekday (~85% by 9am) and that there are many more Seattle-bound vs. Bellevue-bound trips (214 + 554 vs. 556), it would seem to me that a route serving a connection to Seattle would be best (since one-seat rides are impractical due to DSTT capacity constraints). ST could even set up the Redmond-Seattle and Issy-Bellevue schedules to have a timed connection at the junction station, much like BART does throughout its X-shaped system.

        3) Agreed on freight rail; my point was to retain the trail in the corridor simply for the sake of preserving the trail, which from my casual observations* seems to be fairly well patronized.

        (* – I’m not claiming a Norman-esque daily-people-counting level of detail here.)

    2. The B7 line is DOA after the last city council session and with the ARUP study.. Sad but true… the cost are just to enormous to over come the challanges and we would never know what WASDOT would do and when they would do it… You would be left hanging doing work and spending funds and then not know if you can cross the slew.. then comes the feds to approve the site based on the environmental factors.. this is another large hurdle to over come.. There are other pitfalls and not without major obsitcles… So my view of B7 is very clear… DOA

  10. The post is about a non issue. Issaquah has and could continue to have fast transit via I-90. Issaquah Link is irrelevant. Transit funds are scarce. To achieve reliable transit on I-90, apply variable tolls.

      1. You and many others can see through their “FOOLISHNES”. councilman Wallace made several very “UN” Thoughtful responses.. as well as the other councilwoman…This did not show their better side….

  11. Well, we need some engineering and ridership studies on what would be feasable for Issaquah. Could it connect to East Link just south of South Bellevue station? The station really has three purposes. (1) P&R, (2) walkshed to surrounding houses and the trailhead, (3) transfer point for future Issaquah and south lines. #1 should be replaced by better local transit. #2 is weak because of the low density in the area. #3 depends on those lines being built and using that station. I wish we could consider just deleting the South Bellevue station, and then it wouldn’t be so bad if future lines bypass it. Oh the other hand, if Issaquah Link could use the station and share East Link’s track to Hospital and then diverge to Kirkland (or 520), I would feel better about it. If Issaquah Link takes its own path to BTC bypassing the slough area, then the South Bellevue station would be underperforming forever.

    We also need some studies on a north-south line. That could share East Link’s track from Hospital to South Bellevue, or use its own track on BNSF. But we should have an idea which way it’ll eventually go rather than just assuming it’ll work and then finding out later it doesn’t.

    I hope the BNSF ROW can accommodate both rail and a trail. Light rail would be better than heavy rail because it’s more frequent, and it could accommodate multiple lines branching to different places.

    1. Given that ST has suspended preliminary engineering on Overlake-Redmond in order to scrape together the money for Seattle-Overlake, I syspect the odds of doing any of this PE in the next decade are pretty slim.

      1. Seems like those design projects would be pretty good candidates for federal dollars if there are any, right?

  12. Thank you, this guy John Chelminiak knows how to build rail. Who ever heard of rail avoiding neighborhoods? This Southern Bellvueites say “Don’t build light-rail in our neighborhood”… but buses already go through your neighborhood and make much more noise than trains ever would and spew gas fumes into your home’s windows. I just don’t get it… the train is supposed to be as close to the neighborhoods as possible, building the train between a freeway and lake along the BNSF corridor is the biggest waste of money. Build it right. Build it as close to your homes as possible.

    Children will sometimes refuse to do something, shake their head and fold their arms… well that child-like behavior is South Bellevue, and we should ignore them, put them in their room, and do the correct thing no matter what the children say.

    1. On the subject of noise: Last week I was standing next to a guy at the Link Lander Street crossing who had a hand-held sound meter. A northbound train passing through the crossing, with the bells ringing loudly, was about 10db quieter than a truck accelerating away from that intersection.

  13. I want the light-rail line to go through South Bellevue whether they like it or not, but why couldn’t the Issaquah line leave I-90 and venture northwest through Western Sammamish, BC, Factoria and intersect at Hospital Station or BTC downtown. The Issaquah line could then continue to travel northwest through Medina and Clyde hill across the 520 bridge and intersect at UW station turning south and joining the central line ending at King Street Central Station.

    1. No space in the tunnel between UW and Downtown for trains coming that way. However, I think there would be space if you just continue across I-90 and into Downtown then up to Northgate, since they need the extra capacity all the way between Downtown and Northgate but you could have three different lines all at reasonable frequencies combine in the main trunk line.

      1. Although I initially liked the idea of 1-seat Issaquah/Seattle ride, it’s been pointed out to me that the downtown tunnel is already going to be at capacity when Central Link and East Link share it. If an Issaquah line is ever added, it wouldn’t be possible to send any more trains downtown unless we cut service on East or Central link – not likely.

        So, with the high current Issaquah-Seattle transit demand (at least, compared to Issaquah-Bellevue), it’s likely to hug I-90 to provide a faster Seattle transfer at South Bellevue station, rather than tacking Northwest and having a downtown Bellevue transfer. It’ll end up being cheaper to get that ROW along 90 and then share East Link’s tracks north to Bellevue. From downtown Bellevue, just by glancing at a population density map I’d guess it’d branch off northwest to Kirkland & Juanita, giving us an X shaped system on the eastside.

        But this is a long way off. A REAL long way off. We’ve got extensions to Redmond, Lynnwood, and Federal Way to worry about before we start thinking about running lines to low-density suburbs like Issaquah. That’s going to keep us busy for a good 20 years at least. And in that time, patterns may shift anyway.

      2. DSTT capacity wouldn’t matter if some Eastside trains went south instead of into downtown.

    2. Because the largest (current) market from Issaquah is to the Seattle CBD, not the U District

  14. I would love to see a post about Issaquah transit, especially the future of a LINK connection and the planned trolley. I know this blog is Seattle-centric, but even just a post or two would be awesome.

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