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Originally published July 28, 2011 at 9:36 PM | Page modified July 30, 2011 at 11:43 AM

Sound Transit approves East Link light-rail route

Sound Transit directors approved an East Link light-rail route Thursday that gives Bellevue a tunnel it has long sought but rejects the city's previous preferred route that would have crossed Mercer Slough south of downtown.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Sound Transit directors, encouraged by progress in negotiations with the Bellevue City Council, agreed Thursday to dig a costly tunnel for light-rail trains through downtown Bellevue.

The transit board approved an East Link rail route that gives Bellevue a tunnel it has long sought but rejects the city's previous preferred route that would have crossed Mercer Slough south of downtown.

If built as planned — and some board members are worried that declining tax receipts could delay or scuttle parts of the plan — the board's action adopts a route and station locations for the rail line that are expected to connect Seattle, Mercer Island, Bellevue and Redmond by 2023.

Bellevue and Sound Transit staff agreed on the basic terms of what they hope will become a legally binding deal by October. The preliminary agreement, which the Bellevue council is to ratify in the next two weeks, calls for the city to share the cost of the tunnel, support Sound Transit's rail route through south Bellevue, and work cooperatively with the transit agency on permitting and construction.

"I am delighted at what has happened recently and the new spirit of cooperation," said Fred Butler, the Issaquah City Council's deputy president, who successfully urged the Sound Transit board to approve the route plan and the agreement with Bellevue.

Months of strained relations between Bellevue and Sound Transit gave way to intense negotiations several weeks ago after a majority on the City Council concluded that their desired rail route across Mercer Slough and along an abandoned freight-rail corridor beside Interstate 405 would cost more than Sound Transit could afford.

"We both have work to do on how we can finance it, but I think we're on the same side," said Claudia Balducci, a member of both the Bellevue City Council and the Sound Transit board. She said the often-divided council is united on the goal of making sure the rail line through south Bellevue is designed in a way that minimizes noise and traffic disruptions.

Sound Transit agreed in the preliminary deal with Bellevue to evaluate a grade-separated alignment along 112th Avenue Southeast, noise walls and wider landscaping in Surrey Downs, and construction of a new southbound lane on Bellevue Way Southeast.

But many details are to be worked out before a binding agreement can be reached, and the Sound Transit board insisted that Bellevue must share in any tunnel-related cost overruns. The preliminary agreement as presented to the board limited Bellevue's obligation to $160 million, or about half the expected cost of the tunnel.

Sound Transit staffers said the tunnel — which wasn't part of the Sound Transit 2 plan approved by voters in 2008 — leaves East Link with a $100 million to $200 million funding gap, but they said they hope to narrow the shortfall through a variety of measures before construction begins in 2015.

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn and Metropolitan King County Councilmember Larry Phillips, members of the Sound Transit board, voted against the rail alignment, saying it wasn't clear Sound Transit could afford the downtown tunnel. "By making this commitment we're starting with what is a $100 million to $200 million hole. That's if everything works out," McGinn said.

King County Executive Dow Constantine said it was "critical" to approve the route, including a tunnel he said would improve travel times. "I think it's important to recognize when it is time to dig in and hold our ground and when it is time to accept compromise and be leaders and move forward. With the progress that has been made in recent weeks, it's time to move forward," he said.

Since Bellevue officials several weeks ago signaled their willingness to compromise, "there's been a sea change of collaboration and cooperation," said Sound Transit CEO Joni Earl. She said she was hopeful the sides could reach a final agreement.

The Sound Transit board also voted Thursday to move up extension of the existing South Link rail line from Sea-Tac/Airport Station to South 200th Street by four years, from 2020 to 2016.

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or kervin@seattletimes.com

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