The ST3 program is widely viewed as disappointing for Kirkland. The city wasn’t quite passed over: I-405 BRT will serve Totem Lake and NE 85th St in 2024, and rail will extend to South Kirkland in 2041. But most observers focus on the missed opportunity to connect Downtown Kirkland via the Eastside Rail Corridor. Why did this happen, and what are the implications?
It’s instructive to start at the beginning. In mid-2015, ST3 was anticipated as a 15-year package including rail to Redmond and BRT on I-405. Other Eastside rail investments would follow in ST4. Recognizing the risks of waiting, Kirkland developed a Bus Rapid Transit proposal with Sound Transit and Metro buses running in largely exclusive right-of-way along the ERC. The reduced capital costs, it was hoped, could fit within a 15-year program.
As a 25-year program came into view, the calculus shifted to potentially include a rail line between Kirkland and Issaquah. But Kirkland’s study highlighted several advantages of a busway. It could serve more destinations including Seattle (with four times the demand of a Bellevue-Kirkland service). It connected more activity centers within Kirkland, and eased the challenge of serving Downtown Kirkland. A busway might better balance trail uses, though not enough to appease South Kirkland neighbors who were determined not to have any transit passing their homes.
Kirkland was convinced of the advantages of BRT on the Corridor, but other stakeholders were less supportive. Sound Transit, improbably, estimated only about as many riders on the BRT in 2040 as the corresponding Metro routes today, emphasizing time penalties of deviating off the corridor to serve denser areas. The tortured history of BRT “alternatives” to rail on the Eastside ensured transit lobby groups would be skeptical. Issaquah worried about the implications of Kirkland BRT for its own rail plans. Even Bellevue placed a greater emphasis on I-405 BRT as a major north-south connection.
In March, negotiations deadlocked, and compromise proposals fell apart. The Board dodged the stalemate in Kirkland by building to Central Issaquah instead. Kirkland would only get two I-405 BRT stops and a study of ST4 options. A late amendment to the plan added a short rail extension to South Kirkland. Regulatory risk was minimized by locating the station within the city of Bellevue.
In a more dispassionate technical exercise, the Board would have selected rail to Kirkland over rail to Issaquah. Arguably, Kirkland’s BRT option outperformed either. Ridership on a rail line between Kirkland and Issaquah is mostly intra-Bellevue, with fewer riders at the ends of the line. But the economics favored an extension to Kirkland over Issaquah because the right of way was less expensive.
There has been much second-guessing of the tactical decisions made, mostly by observers not in the room. One popular view saw the decision as a concession to Save-Our-Trail. They were certainly prominent at Board and Council meetings. But six members of the Kirkland Council supported transit on the corridor to the end, even while attempting a balance between competing corridor uses. The Board was ready to build rail. Save-Our-Trail seems to have succeeded largely by accident.
More puzzling is why a bus-vs-rail debated ended with neither. The Kirkland BRT plan would have returned several hundreds of millions for projects elsewhere. There was understandable frustration in Kirkland that others insisted on a more expensive and arguably less functional alternative.
Tactical decisions aside, Kirkland was inadequately prepared for the ST3 process in several ways.
Downtown Kirkland is small and the community mostly favors keeping it that way. Only by the forgiving standards of the East King subarea would an urban center so small (or constrained by regulation) be considered for a large ST3 investment. When the debate grew contentious, Kirkland was not critical to the regional system and it was too easy for the Board to walk away.
The political groundwork was not in place. Kirkland’s BRT proposal evolved through work with consultants in 2015. That was very late to socialize ideas with such complex impacts to neighboring cities. It didn’t help either that citizens were surprised to learn of a transit proposal alongside the newly opened trail.
Land use policy, except maybe in Totem Lake, is not transit-supportive. Even as ST3 planning was underway, the City botched an effort at multifamily parking reforms (de facto, already high parking minimums increased), and limited a rezone just a block south of the transit center. A rezone in Houghton was deferred until after the election. At the same time, other cities were boosting their prospects with aggressive increases in planned growth and regional growth center designations.
At the same time, other parties did not consider local needs closely. Transit advocates sought a complete regional rail system, and believed rail would “vote” better on the Eastside. Little attention was paid to the challenges of using a corridor that was close, but not quite close enough, to demand centers. The costs of rail into Downtown were never studied, despite the reasonable worry that bus connections from downtown to a 6th St station would prove unworkable.
It’s tempting, but wrong, to see ST3 as dooming Kirkland to be outpaced by other Eastside centers in the next 25 years. A rail line with fewer than 5000 riders between Wilburton and Totem Lake wouldn’t even serve a large proportion of Kirkland transit users in 2040, so the loss is less consequential than one might suppose. Meanwhile, the Metro Long Range Plan anticipates early investments in Kirkland including an upgraded connection between downtown and Bellevue by 2025.
There are other grounds for optimism. Notwithstanding regulatory constraints, historic downtown remains one of the densest and most in-demand urban centers on the Eastside. The 85th St BRT station is inconveniently far from the traditional downtown, but less far from the parts of downtown where more growth is permitted. The Totem Lake Urban Center is viewed skeptically in many quarters. But it has a surprisingly healthy development pipeline, with 3,400 residences under construction or in permitting. Even South Kirkland may take advantage of proximity to Bellevue’s commercial core to grow much faster.