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Originally published Tuesday, January 11, 2011 at 8:09 PM

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Light rail fractures Bellevue council

In 2008, voters approved the construction of East Link, a light-rail line that would run from Seattle to Bellevue and Overlake. But the debate over potential routes for the multibillion project also started to fracture a once-cohesive Bellevue City Council.

Seattle Times Eastside reporter

For many years, the Bellevue City Council had a reputation among developers and businesses as consistent and predictable. Votes were unanimous more often than not. Disagreements were resolved quietly.

The city, known for being fiscally conservative and forward-thinking, had a vision for its growth that over the past three decades turned the Eastside's largest city into a regional economic force, with major corporations such as T-Mobile USA and Expedia choosing the city for its headquarters. In recent years, Bellevue Square expanded, the Crossroads area experienced a resurgence and a luxury shopping complex, The Bravern, opened its doors.

Voters in 2008 approved the construction of East Link, a light-rail line that would run from Seattle to Bellevue and Overlake.

But the debate over potential routes for the multibillion-dollar project also started to fracture a once-cohesive council.

The council often split 4-3 on light-rail decisions in the past year. Members sniped at each other during debates about routes. The mayor took the rare step of scolding the Sound Transit board at a public meeting for its light-rail policy for Bellevue.

"Bellevue used to be known as the city council that was the stellar council in the region, and other councils were dysfunctional," former Mayor Connie Marshall said. "Now Bellevue is dysfunctional."

Routes of contention

Not long after voters approved East Link, Sound Transit released a draft environmental-impact statement that included potential routes in Bellevue. A split on the council emerged not long after that.

In 2009, when the council weighed its first recommendation to Sound Transit, members disagreed on routes for South Bellevue. The council voted 4-3 to recommend to Sound Transit a route that would send light rail up Bellevue Way Southeast toward downtown. The Sound Transit board supported a similar route, but neighborhoods near the proposed route lobbied against it.

That fall, Jennifer Robertson and Kevin Wallace ran for election and pledged their support to the path that lost out in the vote, which would avoid single-family neighborhoods south of downtown. Their preferred route would head east across the Mercer Slough parallel to Interstate 90, bypassing Bellevue Way, then swoop north toward downtown via the BNSF Railway. Critics said that route would have a lower ridership and higher cost than the Bellevue Way route, among other problems.

Robertson and Wallace were elected. They joined Mayor Don Davidson and Deputy Mayor Conrad Lee and changed the council's route recommendation.

Claudia Balducci — a new member of the Sound Transit board — opposed the move, as did John Chelminiak and Grant Degginger.

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The council was unanimous on other parts of the route, including support for a downtown tunnel, but the more the council debated specifics of the South Bellevue route, the more the group splintered.

In 2010, the poor economy meant the council had to slow down and reprioritize, Wallace said, and that has caused friction, too.

"The value in having seven people is you have different viewpoints," he said. "Sometimes you win some votes, and sometimes you lose some votes."

Some council members said disagreements among members are part of making public policy. Others are critical of what they consider a new lack of respect and civility.

Davidson contends the divisive moments have been limited to light-rail discussions. When the council focused on other issues, the seven members compromised, he said. He pointed to a unanimous vote to balance a budget that included cuts and layoffs, and a vote in December to adopt a plan to create a waterfront park on Meydenbauer Bay.

"I personally think we get along much better than the public image we put out," Davidson said.

But the council has not resolved its differences with Sound Transit over the route for South Bellevue, nor has it figured out a way to pay for its estimated $150 million share of the downtown tunnel, both key issues for 2011.

Some developers say they are concerned the city has become unpredictable. And with four members up for election this year — including Balducci, Chelminiak, Degginger and Robertson — the divide is likely to persist.

"When you have a 100-year project — to which Bellevue has some, but not complete control — it's going to result in a lot of passionate dialogue," Robertson said. "We don't all see things the same way."

The council's "low point," according to Davidson, was a public meeting in September. Wallace and Balducci accused each other of putting personal and professional interests ahead of the city's on light-rail decisions. The confrontation ended with Balducci leaving the room in a huff. A video of the fight made the rounds on local blogs.

Balducci, in her second term on the council, said she believes a lack of collegiality on the council makes it hard for her to work with some fellow members. The city suffers as a result, she said.

"I'm not saying things used to be easy," she said. "Now everything has become a potential minefield. ... I think what we're projecting to the outside world is we can't be relied upon."

What outsiders see

The Bellevue council's past reputation for consistent public policy made it an appealing place for businesses to bring employees and for developers to invest, said Greg Johnson, president of Wright Runstad. The Seattle development company is a key partner in the city's efforts to transform an industrial corner northeast of downtown — the Bel-Red area — into a multiuse neighborhood centered on light rail.

But he said he is troubled by the continued debate over light rail in South Bellevue. The city recently hired an engineering firm to do additional work on its favored route on the BNSF Railway, despite Sound Transit's consistent endorsement for a Bellevue Way line. That route does not impact the Bel-Red section of the line directly, but Johnson said he is concerned about the possibility of delays. East Link is scheduled to open in 2021.

"What we'd love to see," he said, "is some leadership emerge that could bring all the constituencies together that really talk meaningfully about solutions, as opposed to everyone going off and doing their own study."

But developer Kemper Freeman, who has been fighting light rail and has a case before the state Supreme Court to stop Sound Transit from using the I-90 bridge for light rail, said he believes the council is airing concerns and criticisms of the transit agency that have not been given enough consideration.

"I'm 100 percent in agreement with the neighborhoods on this," Freeman said. "They're being trampled to death by Sound Transit."

Dan Ivanoff, managing investment partner for development firm Schnitzer West, which owns The Bravern, a luxury shopping, office and residential complex, said Bellevue still is maturing as a city. Despite efforts by Freeman and others to try to prevent light rail from coming to the Eastside, the city's demographics are shifting, Ivanoff said. Voters showed they wanted light rail when they approved the East Link funding package in 2008, he said.

"It's part of the growth from an adolescent to a young adult," he said.

The Sound Transit board is expected to make its final decision on East Link routes, including the downtown tunnel, this year, while the city also will receive the results from its engineering study on the BNSF route.

Chelminiak said he is worried that, if the council doesn't change its approach, the city could lose the tunnel, creating even more problems as trains would run on congested downtown streets.

But he is hopeful the council can put aside the bickering from the past year.

"Let's try to put that aside and move back into the way we have worked together before," Chelminiak said. "I think if we can do that we'll be a much stronger body."

For his part, Wallace said he prefers to work with Sound Transit in a cooperative way and not through the courts.

If Sound Transit does not endorse the city's preferred route, however, "all options are on the table."

Nicole Tsong: 206-464-2150 or ntsong@seattletimes.com

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