Bellevue sounds off on East Link

Bellevue residents are piping up as Sound Transit chugs forward with plans for extending light rail to the Eastside.

The project, known as East Link, will change the city forever, and a number of groups, some with competing interests, are trying to have their say while there's still a chance.

Sound Transit is considering 16 route options for Bellevue, and each one presents problems for one group or another.

Some welcome East Link as a long-overdue modernization of the regional transit system, while others are concerned about issues like noise, vibrations, construction, crime and property loss.

The Bellevue City Council is scheduled to make a final recommendation to Sound Transit by Feb. 23.

Bellevue transportation official Bernard van de Kamp called East Link “one of the most complex projects the city has ever dealt with.”

Multiple groups are preparing recommendations of their own, including the Bellevue Downtown Association and numerous neighborhood organizations.

Residents are torn over whether to build East Link along Bellevue Way Southeast or along the BNSF rail corridor that runs parallel to 118th Avenue Southeast.

Many who live in the Surrey Downs neighborhood are fighting to keep the tracks away from their community, which means the line would have to steer clear of 112th Avenue Southeast, Main Street, and Bellevue Way.

But condo-dwellers along 118th Avenue are no more anxious to see the trains encroach on their neighborhoods.

Sound Transit's draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) suggests that running East Link along the BNSF line as opposed to Bellevue Way would reduce ridership. The idea is that East Link needs to connect with the south Bellevue Park & Ride along Bellevue Way in order to maximize usage.

Bellevue City Councilmember Don Davidson has disagreed with that notion, suggesting that ridership would remain the same with a station along the BNSF corridor, near the corner of Southeast Eighth Street and 118th Avenue Southeast.

“I think we should take a fair look at our options and not pre-judge that line,” he said.

There’s a substantial amount of give and take with the downtown options as well. An elevated line in that area would alter the visual landscape, while tunneling would cause the most disruption during construction.

Another issue under consideration is how to construct the tunnels that Sound Transit is considering.

Cut-and-cover techniques would distribute construction impacts along the underground stretch, whereas deep-bore methods concentrate the disturbances along either end.

The Bellevue Downtown Association is mulling over alternatives and plans to make a recommendation to the city council in February.

“It’s a real exercise in consensus building,” said Patrick Bannon, a spokesman for the organization. “We may never reach a consensus, but we want to get all the information on the table and make as much of an informed choice as we can.”

Kevin Wallace of Bellevue has been advocating for a combination that he calls “The Vision Line,” which would run on elevated tracks along the BNSF corridor before heading underground into downtown Bellevue via Main Street and 106th Avenue Northeast.

Another resident has come up with a plan that defies the idea of bringing light rail across I-90.

Jim Haskin proposes running East Link along the 520 bridge instead, since the state is about to rebuild that structure anyway. He says this would provide more longevity for the light-rail line.

Sound Transit's DEIS does not take into account several land-use changes that are expected once Bellevue adopts a makeover plan for the Bel-Red corridor.

Early estimates indicate that as many as 10,000 new residents could be living in that area when all is said and done.

City officials say Sound Transit needs to be armed with that information before making a decision about whether to run the East Link line along Highway 520 or the Bel-Red corridor on its way to Overlake.

The DEIS doesn't show much ridership difference between those two alternatives, which means Bellevue could miss out on an opportunity to have East Link run along the Bel-Red corridor.

Councilmember Conrad Lee suggested it would be inappropriate to choose a preferred route before Sound has taken the finalized Bel-Red plan into account.

“I don’t think it would be defensible to make an alignment choice based on incomplete information,” he said.

The city council is expected to finalize a plan for the Bel-Red corridor in February.

“We want to make sure all the land-use changes are in place before the next go-round with the environmental impact statement,” van de Kamp said.

Park lands are another issue. Some of the East Link alternatives would force years-long closures of McCormick and Surrey Downs parks, for instance.

Land condemnation has become a sensitive issue with some residents, as Sound Transit at one point suggested the city should remove language from its proposed comprehensive plan that suggested construction staging areas should not be located in residential neighborhoods.

City staff has so far recommended placing East Link along Bellevue Way, coupled with a tunnel along either 106th Avenue Northeast or 108th Avenue Northeast.

Three additional public meetings will take place at Bellevue City Hall before the city council makes its final recommendation to Sound Transit.

Feb. 2: Bellevue City Council public hearing

Feb. 9: Council preferences discussion

Feb. 23: Council final recommendation

Joshua Adam Hicks can be reached at jhicks@bellevuenews.us or 425.453.4290.