By Josh Benaloh
Last week I read with great interest Dan Ryan’s excellent post on the proposed refinements to the Redmond Link Extension that is expected to begin service in 2024. As a resident of Redmond and former chair of Sound Transit’s Citizen Oversight Panel, I have followed this process intently for more than a decade. The process has been open, and every step along the way has been reasonable and justifiable; but it may be a good time to take a step back and consider whether we’ve landed in the best place.
The 2011 Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) considered several possible light rail alignments through downtown Redmond including the E2 preferred alignment (shown above) and the E4 alignment (shown below).
These two alignments take very different paths through Redmond. The E2 travels from Overlake along SR-520 to Southeast Redmond and then hooks back along the BNSF railway corridor to a terminus in downtown Redmond. The E4 departs SR-520 much earlier—west of the Sammamish River – goes directly to downtown Redmond and then follows the BNSF corridor in the opposite direction to a terminus in Southeast Redmond.
In 2006, while the EIS process was underway, Redmond endorsed the E2 alignment as the only way to reach the Redmond Transit Center (RTC). By the time the EIS was complete in 2011, Redmond and Sound Transit had abandoned the goal of reaching the RTC because it would have added at least $100-200 million to the cost. However, a “preferred” version of the E2 route was selected – largely because it came closer to the RTC than any of the alternatives.
Last month, Redmond and Sound Transit presented a set of proposed refinements which improve E2 further by moving the Downtown Redmond Station location and elevating a portion of the alignment. While these refinements are very reasonable, it is interesting to note that the newly proposed station locations precisely coincide with those considered in the E4 alignment.
An Objective Comparison
So, given that the refined E2 now reaches exactly the same station locations as the original E4, it is appropriate to compare the two options.
Relative to the preferred E2, the E4 alignment was estimated by the 2011 EIS to cost $50 million less, reduce the track length by nearly half a mile (resulting in lower operating and maintenance costs), displace fewer businesses and fewer than half the employees, and require appropriation of about one third of the parkland. In addition, because of its shorter track length, elimination of the hairpin turn, and more direct service to downtown Redmond, the travel time from Redmond to Bellevue and Seattle would be reduced by several minutes. Finally, with its terminus in Southeast Redmond, the E4 alignment has far more potential to be extended in future years to the foot of Sahalee Way where it could provide service to the significantly underserved city of Sammamish.
It is evident that the largely at-grade E4 alignment offers numerous advantages over the E2 alignment with the proposed relocation of the Downtown Redmond Station. But Redmond and Sound Transit also propose to elevate a portion of the alignment (at an estimated cost of $30-40 million). How would this affect the E4 option?
An elevated Downtown Redmond Station was not contemplated in the 2011 EIS, so what might it look like and how would it compare?
An elevated E4 to downtown Redmond could follow SR-520 further eastward – leaving the state highway alignment at the Sammamish River, travel over a small wetland and the Redmond Farmer’s Market site (many of the world’s great public markets are situated beneath rail lines), and behind the historic Justice William White house (which would likely have needed to be relocated by an at-grade E4) to the Downtown Redmond Station.
This elevated E4 routing would be more expensive than an at-grade E4 (perhaps increasing the cost by $40-60 million), but it would likely still be far less expensive than the elevated E2 being proposed, would shorten the track length still further, and would be even less disruptive than the at-grade E4 previously considered. Figures, citations, and maps can all be found in the attachment here.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Now is our last chance – before final design and construction – to make our final assessments about the public transit infrastructure that will serve Redmond for the next century. This Thursday, the Sound Transit Board will vote on a motion to instruct staff to analyze its proposed revisions to the preferred E2 alignment. A simple amendment to this motion could empower staff to also look at variants of E4 or other options to see if they make more sense in view of current circumstances.
If there are good reasons to dismiss E4 and its variants, staff can do this quickly with minimum expenditure of time and resources. But if a modern E4 has as much potential benefit as it would seem, then it is well worth taking the time to do this right.
Josh Benaloh is a resident of Redmond and former chair of Sound Transit’s Citizen Oversight Panel.