Photo by rutlo

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:

  1. Reduce project scope: defer stations, shorten the line, reduce parking, etc. No word on what would be on the chopping block in this case.
  2. Local contributions: Bellevue has already committed a lot.
  3. Pursue Grants
  4. Delay the Project: having already slipped delivery by a year and maybe two, the ST board seems pretty uninterested in further slippage.
  5. 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.

44 Replies to “The Shame of the Bellevue Tunnel”

  1. The best public/private opportunity I can think of right now is with the NHL. Build a hockey stadium in downtown Bellevue with the condition that the developer fund the remaining cost of the downtown Bellevue tunnel as well as all cost overruns.

      1. Bellevue is too far already, but would do—especially if it were walking distance to Link. A joint NBA/NHL venue would be ideal in terms of activating a space as many nights as possible.

      2. Jason, current thinking is that first would come an NHL team (about half the cost of an NBA franchise), then an NBA franchise.

    1. Public/Private Partnerships were part of the bus tunnel construction project. Westlake Center was built with private money and connected to the Westlake station stop. The private builders got to build a mall served by a transit station stop in the heart of downtown Seattle and the city gets the tax revenue from the retail sales.

      It might be difficult to envision a Westlake Center-type of construction project being built in downtown Bellevue, down the street from Bel Square, but another type of PPP might work.

      The Space Needle is another example of a PPP that worked. The Needle was built with private money and is still in private hands, although the Monorail and the Fair grounds are owned by the City of Seattle.

  2. Some kind of master developer for Bel-Red could probably contribute a great deal to the construction. This is how the old streetcars were built: by private developers as a way to entice people to live in their properties.

  3. My experience observing downtown Portland leads me to favor the tunnel option. Trains at grade do make for an interesting pedestrian experience, and it’s nice not having to go down stairs and escalators, but on the other hand travel times on MAX are so slow that I can’t see why anyone with a car would take it. Portland is a smaller city with a smaller tax base, so maybe it was a good decision to go with a cheaper but slower option. The Seattle metro area should aim for greater mobility and faster travel times. The idea of having full grade-separation from Seattle to Bellevue should be something to strive for.

    1. Except that Portland and Bellevue are not equivalent. Portland’s MAX alignment is like going from International District to Seattle Center on 3rd Avenue with stations every two blocks. The surface segment in downtown Bellevue is only four blocks long.

      1. In downtown Portland, it takes 23 minutes for MAX light rail to travel 2.3 miles in stop-and-go traffic. Do the math….

      2. Yeah, but 4 blocks with stoplights every block, each with a 2-3 minute wait for the light to turn green is still unacceptable. I think we can live with a surface alignment if we are willing to be serious about giving signal priority, but I’m a bit skeptical that the signal priority could really happen, as it would take too much green time from cars entering and exiting the parking garages.

        Getting through Bellevue quickly is also important if we want East Link to be a usable way to get from Redmond to downtown Seattle. If we can get through Bellevue quickly, we can achieve travel times comparable with the 545 today. If the trains slows to a crawl on the downtown Bellevue streets, we’ll be forced to spend money continuing to operate the 545 to provide service that’s essentially duplicative of Link.

      3. As others have pointed out, it is extremely doubtful that Bellevue will allow Link to have signal priority, so that four blocks is going to slow to a crawl. Plus the surface alignment has two stations instead of one, leading to more delay for anyone traveling between Redmond and Seattle. I also think having 4-car trains is going to have issues on the surface. Part of the reason MAX gets away with a surface alignment in Portland is that they decided early on to go with a 2-car maximum, whereas Link is built with 4-car platforms.

      4. Comparable but slower. East Link is estimated at 30-32 minutes from Seattle to Microsoft, while the 545 takes 23 minutes (3pm eastbound weekday). The 545 takes 35 minutes from Seattle to Redmond TC; I assume Link would come in at 35-40.

        Link times: -> Projects and Plans -> see all projects -> East Link -> East Link library -> FEIS fact sheet (2011) and East Link Project Overview (2008)

    2. VTA’s light rain through downtown San Jose might be a better comparison, with its large blocks and wide public ROWs. The travel speeds are a little on the slow side, but it is so easy to see when the trains are approaching and walk over to a simple platform to catch it; I think it works pretty well.

    3. The surface alignment, C11A only goes through two major intersections. The two additional intersections are at either end of the Bellevue TC, where a majority of the traffic already is transit.

  4. One area where ST can cut back a bit is the design of the stations. I think TIBS is a bit grandiose for a station on top of a parking lot in the middle of a freeway. Same with Mt. Baker and a few of the others. Here in Amsterdam the Metro stations are very basic with a streamlined design, and it doesn’t seem to impact ridership.

    1. blame the 1% nonsense and other factors that have us erect edifices instead of functional platforms.

      1. At least it gives it a little character. The only cookie cutter stations seem to be the at-grade RV, SODO, and stadium stations.

      2. who cares about cookie cutter, I am waiting for a train not sipping champagne and admiring the art

      3. Wholeheartedly agree that several stations and most planned stations are overbuilt, but 1% has nothing to do with it.

      4. This is a huge point of contention for me. I live in Paris part of the year and outside of a small roof over some of them the stations aren’t fancy. You have a staircase into the ground, what more do you need? And this is in Paris, one of the most grandiose cities anywhere. I think we go WAY overboard on making our station not only huge but inconvenient to transfer at. I think of the small shops in Paris, I can go into each, get all of my groceries for the day and get home faster than I can walk from the front door of a Fred Meyer to the produce section. We build our Link stations like we build our Fred Meyers. If we have a mix of transit options ie. link and bus converging at one station and that station is 3 stories above ground or underground in a huge building it doesn’t make for very fast transfers. It used to really irritate me to take the Paris Metro 6 and transfer to the 8 because the 6 was above ground and the 8 below but looking back it was very nice in comparison to what we’re doing. At least the stairs are straight down to the connecting train there.

    2. I asked an ST rep at one of the station meetings about the size of TIB and Mt Baker, and he said a lot of it is due to the height of the track. Above a certain height it makes sense to have a mezzanine or multiple stories. The track height is constrained by the height of the surrounding overpasses and obstacles it has to go through, so the station has to be tall enough to reach it, and apparently tall stations means wide stations.

      1. I wouldn’t call either of those stations “champagny”. It has way more to do with the guide way than anything else.

    3. According to ST future stations are going to be more like the Airport station and less like TIBS.

      1. Well, I hope they are more like Airport Station, in that they will have a center platform with redundant elevators and escalators. For the past few days, any riders needing to use the elevator at Mt. Baker Station to head south have been told to board on the north platform, head north to Beacon Hill Station, and transfer there. Maybe this is what the rep was talking about.

        There certainly is artwork at Airport Station.

    4. I totally agree! Mt Baker and Tukwila are clear examples of overbuilding stations to the point where they feel intimidating to the pedestrian. They manage to make one feel like it will be big hassle to access the light rail. Same with Sound Transit’s bizarre insistence that all the entrances to light rail entrances be free-standing structures. Why not build a mixed-use building with a small entrance to the station underground like you see in most cities in the world?

      1. Brooklyn Station will be mixed use, and the Roosevelt Station is being designed to accommodate (though not include) some mixed use on top.

      2. I disagree, TIBS is the one of most beautiful train stations I ever seen. Its looks like a gateway to something great. On the other hand, from a design perspective, Airport Station looks half done. I surely hope Sound Transit, sometime in the near future, comes back to fully remodel the station and the pedestrian bridge to its original design.

    5. The plaza underneath Mt Baker would be perfect for a farmers’ market. Any chance it might get one in the next century?

  5. The N. King subarea would have MORE than enough to pay for a tunnel in Bellevue if the agency just pushes off completion three years or so. Let’s keep our eye on the ball – there’s no deadline to do anything. Time is our friend.

    1. With that argument, I’ll have retired before construction even begins. “Time is our friend” is valid to develop funding for further expansion of the system beyond ST2, but not for projects that are needed immediately.

    2. That might not be a bad idea. You could finish the line to South Bellevue Station and truncate the 550. It’s not ideal but if it really is the difference of 3 years, it might just work. The crush loads start at South Bellevue & Mercer Island so light rail could take care of that. It’s not ideal but at least you could start revamping bus routes designed to connect at South Bellevue.

    3. It would be very bad to postpone construction entirely.

      However, phasing might work. Get-it-built to South Bellevue while collecting the money for the rest. Heck, the opening of South Bellevue might get Surrey Downs demanding that the line be extended further north. :-)

  6. I don’t understand how pushing things later saves money. In fact, I believe in general that doing construction SOONER saves money, mostly because the cost of construction has been consistently outpacing inflation for many years now. So I propose that to afford it they just pull in the delivery date 5-7 years (it is more than technically feasible to build a light rail line in 5 years, if the will exists).

    1. It would be nice to accelerate construction, but Sound Transit has limits on how much of a project can be bonded. The annual tax income limits the construction schedule.

    2. It saves money because it reduces debt. ST has pointed this out in it’s own annual reports. Think of it not as postponing the start of construction but accelerating the completion of the line to Redmond.

      1. So when do we pay for all of this? It seems that we’re getting short changed because money coming in is less as a result of the recession. Do we expect to be in a recession for the next 30 years?

      2. The next boom has been postponed by a government unwilling to invest in alternative energy, infrastructure, education, and an industrial policy (to revive US manufacturing). The high unemployment may not last 30 years but it could last 10 years or more.

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