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Originally published February 8, 2010 at 12:04 AM | Page modified February 8, 2010 at 10:19 AM

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Light-rail 'vision' elevated track would run along I-405

Rookie Bellevue City Councilman Kevin Wallace is proposing an elevated light-rail track along Interstate 405 rather than a tunnel or surface track into downtown Bellevue.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

Trains on downtown Bellevue streets would delay cars. A tunnel costs more and requires ripping up streets during construction.

Rookie Bellevue City Councilman Kevin Wallace believes he can solve both problems.

Wallace proposes the "Vision Line," an elevated track that would run alongside Interstate 405, with a stop not in the heart of downtown but on its east fringe, near Meydenbauer Center.

But the council's first choice is a tunnel, something it officially endorsed last year, Mayor Don Davidson said. The underground option would run through the epicenter of downtown, stopping at Bellevue's bus center before the tracks elevate toward the hospital district, east of the freeway. Other options include surface routes that turn from Main Street north into the office district.

"The interest in the Vision Line is more of a fallback, if it [a tunnel] doesn't work out," said Bellevue Councilwoman Claudia Balducci, newly appointed to the Sound Transit governing board.

It's not a fallback for Wallace, who joined the council after its endorsement of a tunnel.

"From my perspective, the goal is to provide good light-rail service, but in a way that protects Bellevue businesses from construction impacts, as well as its roads," Wallace said from his office near the freeway.

Wallace, 38, is the son of longtime Bellevue businessman Robert Wallace, who owns an office near the proposed I-405 station, as well as property in Bellevue, Seattle and other cities. The councilman is president of Wallace Properties, the family business, which owns property where the proposed trackway entering the station would sit.

Sound Transit and Bellevue leaders will meet Thursday to discuss light-rail route issues. Voters in 2008 approved the $2.8 billion route from Seattle's International District to Mercer Island, Bellevue and Overlake, as part of a three-line regional system. Service to Bellevue is scheduled to begin in 2020.

The upside to Wallace's Vision Line is an estimated savings of $430 million compared with a tunnel, says a study to be published Monday by Sound Transit.

The downside is a likely loss of ridership.

The freeway station would cut the predicted 2030 Eastside ridership by 2,500 — there would be 51,000 daily boardings with a tunnel, and only 48,500 with the Vision Line, the Sound Transit study says.

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That's mostly because fewer workers and condos would be within a five- to 10-minute walk of the station.

A surface or tunnel route does the best job of reaching downtowners but would be a slightly longer ride for regional commuters, the study says.

A surface or tunnel option would collect and drop off light-rail riders next door to the Bellevue Transit Center. But a walk from the proposed Vision Line station to the west end of the transit center is four blocks, or about 460 steps. The distance is similar to the passageway from Sound Transit's SeaTac / Airport Station to the terminal, but it's up a hill that gains 60 feet of elevation.

So the station would need a moving walkway to downtown, Wallace said.

Councilman Grant Degginger said he's concerned that a thick, 70-foot-high trackway called for in the Vision Line plan would look like the Alaskan Way Viaduct. "Is that the look we want for the gateway to downtown?"

Changing his mind

When voters approved the $18 billion regional plan for light rail, cost estimates in Bellevue were based on elevated tracks through downtown. Bellevue officials immediately denounced that idea, but Sound Transit staff warned that a tunnel could require $500 million extra. Microsoft endorsed a cheaper surface route — to conserve money and improve the odds that construction will continue to Redmond.

Just last summer, Wallace was pro-tunnel, insisting money could be saved or found. Now he says: "The fact is Bellevue already has a $100 million deficit in the capital budget," so city funding for rail would drain money from roads and other public works. And the recession has eroded Sound Transit's sales-tax forecasts.

Equally important, he seeks to keep tracks and a tunnel entrance away from the residential Surrey Downs area south of downtown, which supported his campaign last fall.

Instead of a Main Street station that would uproot businesses next to Surrey Downs, he favors a second freeway station where Southeast Eighth Street meets I-405, with an expanded park-and-ride facility.

Wallace Properties owns office buildings and parking lots in the Vision Line route. Because Sound Transit would condemn that area, he says, other alignments actually are better for the family business. Taxpayers would reimburse property owners, including the Wallaces, at market value, as determined by appraisals, negotiations or by the courts.

Looking in

Wallace says transit should promote or serve redevelopment. Some Seattleites raised the same point to justify the South Lake Union streetcar, to locate Rainier Valley light-rail stops, and to propose shifting the future First Hill Streetcar east to 12th Avenue in central Seattle.

In Bellevue's case, the Auto Row just east of I-405 has been designated for mixed-use retail and dense housing. A footbridge across the freeway would reach those areas, he said.

This amounts to drifting a few blocks from Bellevue's proven transit market to chase a prospective transit market. Wallace replies the redevelopment is likely to come sooner than the trains do. Sound Transit's study did not include a footbridge over I-405, which would add cost. It likely wouldn't affect the ridership stats much because the east-of-405 users would gravitate to the Hospital Station anyway, said East Link project director Don Billen.

Several bus riders interviewed at the transit center Friday were unaware of the political debate over a four-block difference.

"They're going to bring light rail here? Cool!" said Qin Xiaochuan, awaiting the 550 bus to Seattle. "Walking is very healthy, as long as it doesn't take half an hour or more."

Some people laughed at questions about where they'd prefer a station that's a full decade away.

Next to freeway

Wallace's concept has taken a pounding in pro-transit blogs. Dan Bertolet at Publicola.net argues that a freeway station is unwise because I-405 prevents development and access from the east.

Balducci says the new Sound Transit study reinforced to her that to reach the most downtown employees, "it's far better for a station next to the transit center, than for a station along I-405."

Bellevue Square developer Kemper Freeman, a longtime rail opponent, supports Wallace's concept. Freeman is part of a group suing to block Sound Transit from putting trains on I-90. Bruce Nurse, a vice president of Kemper Development, said that nonetheless, the firm realizes voters backed light rail. So Freeman now is looking to the Vision Line as a way to avoid tracks or construction that would block downtown roads and businesses.

Sound Transit's study says that Bellevue traffic will be so congested anyway by 2030 that, if traffic signals are timed for trains, a surface line would slow east-west travel by less than one minute.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or lindblom@seattletimes.com

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