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Originally published September 19, 2011 at 7:10 PM | Page modified September 20, 2011 at 11:12 AM

Bellevue seeks views on light rail as deadline nears

After a year-plus deadlock over the best route for a light-rail line between Interstate 90 and downtown Bellevue, the city and Sound Transit have made progress in renewed negotiations but have far to go to reach a binding agreement, officials say.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Bellevue meetings on light rail

Bellevue has scheduled two sessions for citizens to learn more about and comment on negotiations over Sound Transit's East Link light-rail route from Interstate 90 to downtown Bellevue and funding of a downtown tunnel:

• Tuesday, 4:30 to 6:30 p.m., open house at Bellevue City Hall, 450 110th Ave. N.E.

• Monday, 8 p.m., public hearing before Bellevue City Council at City Hall.

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Just five weeks before a deadline to reach a binding agreement with Sound Transit, the Bellevue City Council is asking citizens to weigh in on the latest ideas for building a light-rail line that's quiet and affordable and doesn't disrupt auto traffic.

Sound Transit has developed maps and drawings of options suggested by the city during renewed negotiations over the most contentious portion of the Seattle-to-Redmond rail project. Those ideas will be shown at an open house starting at City Hall on Tuesday afternoon.

Bellevue and Sound Transit are considering two significant changes to the transit agency's adopted plan: building a southbound high-occupancy-vehicle (HOV) lane on Bellevue Way Southeast and moving a planned crossing of 112th Avenue Southeast from Southeast Sixth Street to Southeast 15th Street.

The HOV lane would maintain four lanes during construction and provide a needed fifth lane in future years, officials say. Sound Transit would pay for the southern portion, but there's been no agreement on who would pay for the remainder of the $35 million HOV project.

Much remains to be resolved, especially whether the rail line should cross 112th Avenue Southeast at grade or on a more expensive flyover or bridge. The flyover would eliminate the sound of bells on trains and crossing gates, but some neighbors worry that it would hurt their views and might still be noisy.

Sound Transit has ruled out an option favored by some residents and City Council members: running trains under 112th Southeast in a "retained-cut" trench. That option would raise the project cost by an estimated $120 million to $180 million, transit officials say — money that neither the agency nor the city has.

Some City Council members are skeptical of Sound Transit's cost estimates, however.

Moving the 112th Southeast crossing south to Southeast 15th Street would eliminate at least two at-grade crossings, one of them on busy Southeast Eighth Street.

When Sound Transit adopted an East Link route in July, it moved a proposed 112th Avenue Southeast station from Southeast Eighth Street to Main Street, where ridership is expected to be higher. That moved part of the line to the west side of 112th Southeast, accommodating property owners' wishes on both sides of the street.

Negotiations between the city and Sound Transit resumed early this summer after a city-sponsored study showed the route advocated by a majority of the Bellevue City Council would cost $138 million more than Sound Transit's preferred route.

Before that, the council majority urged Sound Transit to reduce neighborhood impacts by running the rail line across Mercer Slough and up an abandoned BNSF Railway corridor.

Route more clear

Unless the current talks break down, major elements of the future rail route are clear.

East Link trains, expected to carry about 50,000 passengers a day, will descend from the Interstate 90 bridge to a station and a 1,400-car park-and-ride on Bellevue Way, follow 112th Southeast to downtown, duck into a tunnel and push through the Bel-Red Corridor to Microsoft's Redmond campus.

But when the Sound Transit board adopted that route, it said it would build the $320 million tunnel only if Bellevue agreed to shoulder half the cost, endorse the remainder of the Bellevue route and cooperate on permits, cost and schedule.

Sound Transit said at the time it would study a series of design changes proposed by Bellevue to reduce noise, visual impacts and conflicts with cars on Bellevue Way and 112th Avenue Southeast.

The two sides set an Oct. 25 deadline for completion of a legally binding agreement. If a deal isn't reached, Sound Transit's backup plan is to run trains along downtown Bellevue streets instead of through a tunnel.

Time crunch

Negotiating a complicated deal in such a short time has frayed the nerves of Bellevue council members, some of whom have prodded Sound Transit to extend the deadline. Sound Transit, frustrated by delays that have pushed completion of East Link to 2023, hasn't budged.

Councilmember Kevin Wallace, arguing earlier this month for more time, said, "What we have in front of us now is an obligation of the city of Bellevue to pay more money than we've ever paid, when we don't have enough money to pay our police and firefighters. ... This is crazy. We need to take a realistic amount of time."

Councilmember Claudia Balducci, who also sits on the Sound Transit board, wasn't sympathetic to pleas for more time, saying Bellevue created the time crunch by pushing for a costly alternative that had no chance of being adopted by Sound Transit.

"Let's start acting more like a partner than like a cowboy," she said.

Bellevue and Sound Transit are now "making good progress," City Manager Steve Sarkozy said last week, adding that it will be "extraordinarily complex and difficult" to find solutions that are affordable, technically feasible and satisfactory to neighbors.

Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick said agency officials are optimistic about reaching an agreement by Oct. 25.

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

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