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.
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.
“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.
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.