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Thursday, September 23, 2004 - Page updated at 02:52 P.M.

Eastside light rail envisioned by Sound Transit

By Natalie Singer
Seattle Times Eastside bureau

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Seattle's building it. Tacoma's got it. Even Everett workers can get to work by train.

Is commuter rail finally coming to the Eastside? Maybe.

A preliminary draft list of potential "Phase Two" Sound Transit projects released yesterday to an Eastside planning group shows light rail heading over the Interstate 90 bridge into Bellevue, Redmond, Kirkland and Issaquah.

The concept is only in the earliest stages. There are no cost figures yet, and Sound Transit planners say the list of potential new projects is so big (more than 400 for the region) that even if voters approved a Phase Two down the road, not all the proposals would be built.

But preliminary studies and recent regional decisions indicate growing support for a light rail or monorail system across Lake Washington on I-90.

• An evaluation by Sound Transit and the state Department of Transportation in 2002 found that high-capacity transit on I-90 could cost substantially less than on Highway 520, partly because of I-90's proximity to downtown Seattle.

• A Puget Sound Regional Council memo released this spring as part of a broader study stated that to manage future growth and increase transportation capacity across Lake Washington, planners would have to look beyond bus rapid transit to other technologies such as rail.

• A recent regional agreement, signed after years of negotiations by Sound Transit, Mercer Island, Bellevue, Seattle and King County, outlines the pursuit of high-capacity transit for the reversible center roadway on the I-90 bridge.

At a meeting yesterday of the Eastside Transportation Partnership (ETP) — a multijurisdictional group that develops transportation plans and pursues funding — local representatives were told that the list of possible projects for a second round of Sound Transit investments is still in flux.

Whether any form of rail is included in a final Eastside package, and how far out into the suburbs that line could reach, are "political decisions that haven't been made yet," said Paul Matsuoka, Sound Transit's policy and planning officer.

In 1996, voters in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties approved Sound Move, a $3.9 billion round of transit improvements for the Puget Sound region. The sales tax funding most of the projects will not expire even after those improvements are all built, so that money could be put toward a second round of projects. But voters would have to approve those new investments.
 
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Sound Transit hasn't settled on light rail for the Eastside; the agency will be studying how that technology would compare to monorail and bus rapid transit (an express bus system in its own lanes) on the I-90 bridge.

The potential for a monorail or light-rail system on Highway 522, around the north end of Lake Washington, will also be studied. The results will be released by the end of the year.

Next spring, the Sound Transit board will update its master plan for all the transit improvements it would like to implement over the next several decades. Using the results from the studies, the board will then choose a preferred technology for I-90.

That project, be it bus rapid transit, monorail or light rail, could then go before voters as soon as fall 2005 as part of Phase Two, or it could be pushed off for a later round of improvements.

Eastside cities are getting more seriously involved in the planning. As the Eastside's economic center, Bellevue has a lot at stake.

"If it's going to work, it has to come into downtown," Phil Noble, a Bellevue city councilman and ETP member, said of a rail system.

Much of the preliminary work has assumed that a potential light-rail line would cross the I-90 bridge, exit the center roadway via the existing Bellevue Way ramps and transition to an aerial guideway and station near the South Bellevue Park & Ride, according to a Sound Transit technical report released this spring.

Beyond that, it's uncertain where the route could go. The use of Bellevue Way and 112th Avenue has been discussed, and an Eastside alignment could tie in to efforts to possibly acquire Burlington Northern Santa Fe's 40-mile Eastside route, which stretches from Renton to Snohomish, for public use.

Rail probably wouldn't go on Interstate 405; bus rapid transit already has been selected as the preferred form of high-capacity transit for that highway.

Natalie Singer: 206-464-2704 or nsinger@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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