New apartments just steps away from the future downtown Redmond light rail station.
Credit: Lizz Giordano

Before Sound Transit began planning light rail expansion east to Redmond, the city’s then-mayor, Rosemarie Ives, was already eyeing a congestion-free trip via public transportation from her city to Seattle.

Many are glad Ives, who served as mayor from 1991 to 2007, never got her way and a 60-mile monorail system crisscrossing the region was never built. But under her watch, Redmond did begin planning for transit, inaugurating a shift from a pass-through suburban community to an actual destination city.

“It was a strategy, Redmond wanted a better connection to the rest of the job centers of downtown Seattle and of downtown Bellevue,” said Ben Bakkenta, a senior program manager with the Puget Sound Regional Council. “Once upon a time, downtown Redmond was just this sleepy little farm town. They saw an opportunity. And they had both a mayor and a council that were really supportive of looking 20, 30 years down the road.”

And as employment was rapidly growing, current Redmond Mayor John Marchione said, the city needed to be connected to a regional grid “because there was no way the city could build enough housing or widen the roads enough to accommodate that level of employment.” Today, every weekday, Redmond’s daytime population nearly doubles.

Anticipating light rail would eventually come, Redmond began conducting studies and reshaping its urban form.

“Redmond took a philosophy of, ‘Plan for it and it will come,’” Marchione said.

The neighborhood context plan for Redmond
Credit: Sound Transit

Even before ST2 passed, Redmond already had a plan for station locations and route into the city. ST2, which was approved in 2008, brings light rail across I-90 to the Overlake Transit Center by 2023. Just a year later the downtown Redmond station, part of the ST3 package that passed in 2016, is scheduled to open.

“We found what was beneficial was to stay ahead of Sound Transit at every step of the way,” said Don Cairns, Redmond’s transportation planning and engineering manager. “They are a big entity and once they get moving it’s hard to change things.”

“There was a feeling of, ‘Let’s get this done,’” said John Stilin, a former Redmond councilmember whose second term expired at the end of 2017. “If we wait 10 years it’s going to be a lot more expensive.”

“Elected officials have to balance two roles, representing their constituents but also bringing in new ideas that might lead to a better urban environment,” Stilin added.

Reshaping the urban form

As a frontier city, with one border touching the urban growth boundary line, forethought and long-term planning were needed to bring light rail to Redmond.

The construction of new apartment buildings is concentrating density near the future light rail station.
Credit: Lizz Giordano

“We had to work hard to be part of the regional plan, because we could have easily been ignored,” said Marchione, who is serving his third term both on the Sound Transit Board and as Mayor of Redmond. “We were seeing jurisdictions outside of Seattle be resistant. And we knew, to get light rail to Redmond, we had to have the density around the stations and the transit service to get people in and out (of the station area).”

Cairns said a pivotal time for the city came in 2002, when a downtown transportation study was conducted, which led to the city reclaiming its downtown.

“At that time we wanted to be more of a walking and biking environment. Prior to 2000, we were very much a suburban community, heavily focused on automobile traffic,” Cairns said. “We wanted to plan for transit, both light rail in the long-term future, but also adding more transit into that area (in the short term).”

To become more friendly to pedestrians, the city completed its street grid and narrowed streets. Just recently, it converted the Redmond Street and Cleveland Street one-way couplet into two-direction roadways, a recommendation from that 2002 study. The city also purchased the BNSF rail line, converting it to a multi-use trail, and soon light rail will use segments of that corridor. The multi-use trail runs right through the future downtown Redmond station area, allowing for easy access for residents biking and walking to the station. Apartment buildings are beginning to line the trail’s corridor.

Cairns said another important step to prepare Redmond for light rail expansion was declaring the downtown and Overlake areas urban centers, directing growth and jobs to those areas. That allowed the city to preserve single-family neighborhoods while building density that could leverage future light rail investments. Upzones around the city have led to more multi-family units in Redmond today than single-family units, according to Cairns.

In 2006, before the passage of ST2, the city did a study analyzing various light rail route alignments, allowing the city to influence route alignment and station locations once Sound Transit was ready to begin planning ST2. Cairns said this prevented the track alignment from wreaking havoc on the street grid and moved the tail track facility, used for train storage and turnaround, out of the heart of Redmond’s downtown.

New commercial and retail space was added near the future downtown light rail station.
Credit: Lizz Giordano

Early planning also enabled Redmond to get an official ‘record of decision’ in 2011 for the entire light rail segment in the city, giving Redmond’s last two stations a head start when ST3 was approved.

“So when ST3 came up — and the Eastside had enough money to go to downtown Redmond — because of the record of decision, downtown Redmond was a top priority,” Marchione said.

“They are big significant projects and you have to know how they are going to affect your vision for your city,” Cairns said.

Bakkenta, the PSRC planner, said Redmond also made investments in infrastructure to encourage and attract development in certain areas of the city. One such example he pointed to was a stormwater management system the city installed in the Overlake area.

“It’s completely invisible to everyone but what’s pretty fundamental are these area-wide stormwater management systems,” Bakkenta said. “So that, as people come in and develop projects, they can tie into this new system and don’t have to shoulder that bill themselves as individual developers.”

The city also made an important policy decision: declaring transit a ‘use by right,’ which proactively approves transit infrastructure and therefore is not subject to special review or approval. This streamlines the permitting process by not requiring Sound Transit to get a special use permit to build light rail.

Accelerating light rail expansion

Redmond’s bet paid off. Marchione estimates that by staying 5-10 years ahead of Sound Transit, Redmond was able to shave about a decade off the timeline.

“When I came onto the board in 2008, getting to downtown Redmond was scheduled for 2032-2036,” Marchione said. “By doing it the way we did it, and me being on the [Sound Transit] board, accelerated light rail to Redmond by about 10 years.”

Redmond is not done planning: access and transit integration projects are next for the city.  Cairns said he wants to see bus-rail transfers be seamless and take place as close to the light rail station as possible. Access to light rail stations is always difficult, especially for suburban cities. Partnering with King County Metro Transit, the city is experimenting with a city circulator, but with a frequency of every 45 minutes, the Redmond Loop is not attracting ridership.

“There are two ways for cities to play the game. One is, be the tough negotiator, which really delays implementation and I don’t think gets you a better project,” Marchione said. “Or you can have open conversations with your community and settle what the route is in your community without the pressure of time against you. And then, when the money is available, you can tell Sound Transit what you want because you already went through the process.”

This post is part of a series STB is launching to examine how suburban cities around the region are preparing for light rail. Read the intro post here.

17 Replies to “Redmond Waits for Light Rail”

  1. Thank you, Redmond, for being an example to the region. For planing for rail so early on the “build it and they will come” model, for streamlining the permitting to an exceptional level (although it should be the normal level), and fordensifyibg you urban villages (or at least downtown; Overlake Village not yet).

    Why oh why our our most forward-thinking cities (Renton and Issaquah) on the outskirts rather than inner ring? Density should fall gradually as you go out, but we’re getting it inverted in some cases. Kent is also doing some things right, like upcoming its part of the KDM station area and advocating for Link on 99 (which it lost), and at least taking some steps to densifying part of downtown. (Stiill waiting to hear about East Hill though.) That could lead to another invert depending on how it proceeds and what Tukwila and Renton do.

    1. I think most of the cities on the Eastside are doing pretty well at densifying. Obviously Redmond is probably the further along, but Bellevue, Bothell, Kenmore, and Issaquah are all trying to build up their downtowns. You’re not going to get rid of SFH’s, but you will give people the option to live in a denser area.

      Kirkland is probably the only one that’s really got the NIMBY attitude (and mostly because of the residents, not the government).


        David, in its day, interurban railroading- which is what LINK really is though it rarely carries big aluminum milk cans and John Deere tractor motors though it could- served a lot of people who definitely had no objections to this class of trains in their front yards. SYN’s: “Sure Why Not’s? ”

        Legend had it these trains could hit 90mph between Milwaukee and Chicago city line at Howard street. Very likely no “known-to-be dangerous-but-no-budget-to-fix” curves at 30 on that stretch, though.

        But with a situationally aware hand on the controller, also able to negotiate tight curves in extremely demanding situations. However my main point what this technology great for Cross Kirkland Corridor. These consists could very likely fit the Trail. Used to carry freight behind steam locomotives.

        Main obstacle right now not the nearby home-owners, but fact that South Kirkland Park and Ride requires a three-story elevator ride to the Trail. 108th NE to and from trail, bad slope and curve for a bus let alone lightest streetcar, let alone interurban.

        However, right of way headed from there east and south still has heavy-rail tracks.Missing Downtown Bellevue not completely negative for a train headed for Issaquah, North Bend, and Ellensburg at 90. All the bistro’s used to be in France- hence white table cloths in the restaurant section.

        But constituency guaranteed to change trailsiders’ minds: Nobody’s grand kids will allow their elders to not have that train. Also, red and green “livery” much less likely to attract “wraps”. And come on…Doesn’t “Electroliner” sound a lot faster than “LINK?” Which probably what Electroliner passengers got for breakfast, along with coffee in real china cups.


      1. Renton is trying to eliminate the Renton TC and build a new P&R next to the existing South Renton P&R. So it’s more of a consolidation than an expansion.

    2. I agree Mike.

      Having at least one city outside of Seattle or Bellevue willing to show how to do a walkable, transit-friendly neighborhood in the region sets a great example. It’s important because almost all suburban cities have a certain number of fear-mongerers and doubters and naysayers — so having a physical example for leaders in those cities to visit in the region helps to counter the negativity.

  2. The newer cities can have transit plans in place when it’s time to build. The older cities have more people, cars, and living patterns to adjust. Does anybody know some references on this type of study and work?


  3. Having outer cities create mixed-use districts benefits Link productivity. ST will be running frequent trains in from suburban stations for peak commuters, but off-peak direction trains often go underutilized with plenty of empty seats. Hopefully, Redmond can grow more land uses that will be all-day destinations in addition to the growing mid-rise residences already there.

    1. Al, empty seats aren’t that bad. Cars cost upward of $2 million each. If they sit in the yard 18 hours per day, that’s not a good use of capital. Grant, they will last longer.

  4. It’s unfortunate there is no easier way of getting that SE Redmond station further from the highway. A full 1/3 of the walkshed is taken by highway pavement.

    1. Bus intercept. Busses from the south and east can go there, transfer passengers, then go on into downtown. I hope that the tail track configuration doesn’t prevent a one-station extension out Redmond Way to about 148th in the future for a bus intercept from the north and west.

      1. It’s not really located that well for that either. It’s a pretty significant diversion from the southeast to get into the parking lots, and then they would have to work their way back to Redmond Way.

        Unless there is some sort of walkway and pedestrian bridge that gets people from the station over 520? or Over Redmond way?

        The only bus transfer that works that well for that station location as shown on the plans seems to be from buses westbound on 520, if there is a freeway stop.

  5. One big transportation option which Seattle has, that the Eastside is still largely missing, is car sharing.

    This makes a big difference because no carsharing means every person that might ever need a car has to own one, which, in turn, means every person that might ever need a car needs a separate parking space, which in turn, means lots of excess parking needs to be built, which means higher living prices and less density than would otherwise be possible.

    If Redmond, Bellevue, and Kirkland each car Car2Go service, at least in the downtowns and major commercial areas, it would make a huge difference.

    Fortunately, at least the Eastside has Lyft/Uber – it’s the only private-sector transportation service that doesn’t stop at the Seattle city limit boundary.

    1. There is to much free parking on the east side and i don think the density is there for car sharing to be effective. It would be interesting to see if Uber and Lyft get used more per-capita on the Eastside with slightly more affluent population.

      1. If car sharing can work in Magnolia, Bitter Lake, and Lake City, it can work in downtown Redmond, Bellevue, and Kirkland (which have substantially higher densities than the above neighborhoods in Seattle). The key is that we need the Car2Go model, not the Zipcar model. What makes Car2Go so effective is that the one-way trips give the cars enough steady use to support a fleet that wouldn’t be supported just from the all-day trips, alone.

        There is a strong network effect, and the bigger the home area (e.g. the more places you can get to without paying upwards of $90 to take the car out all day), the more use the cars are going to get. Even if they don’t cover the entire Eastside, they can still focus on the denser areas and major commercial centers. Once the network has a critical mass, apartment complexes will start getting on board because they’ll see car sharing on site as an amenity to sell future residents (and justify higher rents).

        If anything, the “too much free parking” has some advantages. Businesses will be a lot more willing to lease parking spaces in the back of their lot to car sharing companies for next to nothing if they have a surplus of mostly unused parking spaces to begin with.

        At the same time, the Eastside has a lot of young tech workers, which fits with the car sharing demographic, and many people who are moving from other cities don’t necessary want to go out and buy a car right away. (Some, who are starting their first job, don’t have the money, anyway, until they’ve been working a few months). There’s also a large population of interns who don’t have cars. Back when I was a Microsoft intern about 12 years ago, they actually subsidized weekend rental cars for interns who didn’t have them. If Car2Go had a strong presence in parts of Redmond with lots of intern housing, I can easily envision Microsoft subsidizing some of the trips.

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