Personally, I don’t have a terribly strong opinion, on the policy merits, as to how Light Rail gets through Downtown Bellevue, as long as it actually goes through Downtown. There are obvious pros and cons to both a surface and a tunnel option, many of them addressed in our open letter on the subject from last year. Notably, the tunnel adds enough delay to push opening day from 2022 to 2023.
The fact that North Seattle is getting a tunnel is not one of those legitimate concerns. Regardless, it’s notable that the entire Bellevue City Council — including both those generally sympathetic and generally unsympathetic to Sound Transit’s preferences in Bellevue — prefers the tunnel option. That should count for something.
The issue, of course, is money. It’s an excellent sign of good faith that Bellevue has offered to fund much of the cost: in 2010 dollars, now about $160m of $276m after significant value engineering by Sound Transit. It’s really a shame that this came up in a time of austerity; in a time of bursting tax collections, it might have been easily possible to make everyone happy. Furthermore, even the surface option faces a $33m projected shortfall due to collapsed revenues. In either case, ST is going to have to look for economies.
Sound Transit staff has a standard toolkit for bringing a project budget into balance:
- Reduce project scope: defer stations, shorten the line, reduce parking, etc. No word on what would be on the chopping block in this case.
- Local contributions: Bellevue has already committed a lot.
- Pursue Grants
- Delay the Project: having already slipped delivery by a year and maybe two, the ST board seems pretty uninterested in further slippage.
- Pursue a public/private partnership: there may be opportunities to do this with developers in the Bel-Red corridor.
According to spokesman Geoff Patrick, ST staff is working these angles to close the financial gap. Assuming that it does, and ST and Bellevue are able to revise the “term sheet” (like this one) to capture an agreement, at the July 28th meeting the ST board will likely approve a “contingent action” to approve a downtown tunnel. Contingent, that is, on binding agreement between the parties and final FTA approval this Fall.