This post is the first in a series STB is launching to explore how suburban cities around the region are preparing for light rail.
In 2017, the East Link Extension began taking shape as Sound Transit contractors prepared Interstate 90 for light rail and installed the first girders for the elevated track in Bellevue. This year, ST is scheduled to start construction on the Lynnwood Link Extension to bring light rail north to Snohomish County.
To many Eastside commuters, the 2023 opening can’t come soon enough. But the structure of many of these suburban cities — particularly their sprawling, low-density construction — is not conducive to efficient transit systems. To leverage this massive infrastructure investment as it expands, cities must make sizable changes to their urban forms to integrate the transit system.
“If you can only access station areas by driving to them, then you are really limiting your market,” said Ben Bakkenta, a senior program manager with the Puget Sound Regional Council. “You are limiting the usefulness of that structure.”
The PSRC has long played a role in assisting cities as they manage and accommodate growth in the region. Often, that includes gathering data and convening experts to advise cities. The PSRC is also tasked with certifying the transportation elements of the Comprehensive Plan for cities in Kitsap, King, Snohomish and Pierce counties to qualify their jurisdictions for federal transportation funds.
Bakkenta said a primary role of the PSRC in the expansion of light rail “is simply to try to get people to realize these [station areas] are really important places where we need to leverage these investments.”
According to Bakkenta, light rail planning began as early as 1990 with the adoption of the Growth Management Act.
“Sound Transit has used these designated growth centers as the framework in which it is building this system,” Bakkenta said. “Their long-range planning is all about connecting these designated regional centers.”
For decades, some cities, such as Redmond and Bellevue, have been planning for light rail expansion. Other cities, like Shoreline, where two new stations are scheduled to open in 2024, began planning began more recently. Before a rezone in 2016, nearly all of the land in Shoreline adjacent to the planned light rail corridor and the future station areas was zoned for single-family homes. Despite that rezoning, which left single-family areas near future stations open to mixed-use residential projects as high as seven floors, development has been slow to come.
Reconfiguring suburban areas for transit takes more than just increasing density. It also requires mobility improvements so pedestrians and bikers can safely access stations, development of city centers, infrastructure additions to promote and encourage growth; and a change in the mindset of residents.
“What does it take to make these [station areas] attractive, vibrant, interesting places for people?” Bakkenta said. “It takes investment in street infrastructure, it takes making sure there is a mix of uses, it takes affordability, it takes community amenities to make these places where people want to be.”