Bellevue City Council debates better ways to move people, cars around city

Bellevue City Council members Monday tackled the issue of how to meet the city’s transportation needs, studying options on what major projects to pursue and how to pay for them.

Last June, council members directed staff to identify key transportation projects that would address existing congestion and provide the infrastructure needed to support future growth citywide, particularly in the downtown, Bel-Red and Wilburton areas where most growth will occur.

“We face real issues when it comes to congestion, with rapid residential and employment growth under way downtown and significant development projected for the Bel-Red area,” said Bellevue City Manager Steve Sarkozy. “Our challenge is to improve the road system at the same time we increase options to driving alone – and find ways to pay for it.”

In the city’s latest annual resident survey, improving Bellevue’s transportation systems was identified as the highest budget priority. More than four out of 10 respondents ranked transportation as the city’s most pressing issue.

Transportation has been a priority of the council in recent years as the city, along with the Puget Sound region in general, has experienced unprecedented growth. Despite the completion of major transportation projects, including a new downtown Transit Center, improving access to I-405 from downtown and construction of Lakemont Boulevard in southeast Bellevue, mobility challenges have continued to mount.

Even with the current economic downturn the nation is experiencing, Bellevue city planners project rapid job growth and the completion of thousands of new housing units in the downtown area over the next decade. At the same time, the city’s Wilburton commercial area and Bel-Red district are expected to experience significant growth as properties in those areas are redeveloped at higher densities.

As part of their preliminary recommendations, planners are proposing a package of improvements estimated to cost $420 million. Included in the package are projects designed to improve mobility in the downtown central business district, enhance the existing technology used for traffic light signalization and expand neighborhood sidewalks and bicycle corridors.

The improvement package calls for the construction of five, major high-priority projects that would provide enhanced east-west connections across Interstate 405 for cars, high-occupancy vehicles, transit, pedestrians and bicycles. The projects would support land use priorities in the downtown, Bel-Red and Wilburton areas by accommodating short-term development and helping achieve long-term growth targets.

Those projects include:

Extending Northeast Fourth Street and widening 120th Avenue Northeast;

Realigning and widening 120th Avenue Northeast from Northeast Eighth Street to Northup Way;

Constructing a new Northeast 15th Street roadway from 116th Avenue Northeast to 124th Avenue Northeast;

Widening 124th Avenue Northeast from Northeast 15th Street to Northup Way; and

Extending Northeast Sixth Street for high-occupancy vehicles, transit, pedestrians and bicycles from I-405 to 120th Avenue Northeast.

Funds for all the proposed projects are expected to come from a variety of sources, including state and federal programs, existing taxes, developer impact fees and the creation of local improvement districts. The council, which will continue to meet in coming weeks to discuss the various projects, will ultimately decide which funding mechanism to utilize.