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Originally published Sunday, December 12, 2010 at 4:00 PM

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Guest columnist

Why Bellevue must push back on Sound Transit's proposed EastLink route

The Bellevue City Council disagrees with Sound Transit's proposed light-rail alignment in the city's downtown. City Councilmember Kevin Wallace argues the city's decision to hire its own engineer is an important step in protecting citizens' interests.

Special to The Times

THE Bellevue City Council has hired a respected light-rail engineering firm to find a light-rail alignment that meets the goals of both Bellevue and Sound Transit. For many years the city has worked cooperatively with Sound Transit and spent millions to find a mutually agreeable route through Bellevue. We have, generally speaking, achieved this goal north of the Bellevue Transit Center.

Unfortunately, Sound Transit's current "preferred alternative" from Interstate 90 to the Bellevue Transit Center is simply unacceptable. South of downtown, the proposed route runs adjacent to Bellevue Way, the only arterial connecting downtown Bellevue to I-90. This would result in severe traffic congestion during EastLink's six-year construction period. It would subject Bellevue neighborhoods to the noise impacts being experienced by Tukwila neighborhoods. It requires condemnation of 47 homes and places the train adjacent to the homes that remain. Its impacts violate Bellevue's Comprehensive Plan.

It should not surprise Seattle that Bellevue finds this unacceptable. The Surrey Downs and Enatai neighborhoods are similar to Seattle's Maple Leaf and Montlake neighborhoods. Imagine the reaction in Seattle if Sound Transit proposed to run light rail at-grade up Roosevelt Way through Maple Leaf, or to condemn 47 homes in Montlake because running at-grade next to Montlake Boulevard would be less expensive than tunneling. Sound Transit protected these neighborhoods in Seattle and should do no less for Bellevue.

In the downtown area, Sound Transit agreed to study a short tunnel that avoids traffic, noise and safety impacts, but says it is not affordable. The agency is only willing to agree to the tunnel if the city pays $150 million toward the cost. Funding $150 million with bonds secured by property-tax revenues would require Bellevue to increase property taxes by 37 percent for 20 years.

As an affordable alternative, Sound Transit proposes to run the tracks at-grade on downtown streets. This would be unsafe, noisy and cause severe traffic impacts that could not be mitigated. In Bellevue this plan is unanimously opposed, and the city has no legal obligation to convey the right- of-way to enable this outcome.

The new alignment Bellevue is studying simply improves upon alignments Sound Transit has already proposed. It runs on the vacant BNSF freight rail corridor next to Interstate 405, avoiding impacts to our neighborhoods. In downtown it runs along the I-405 frontage road (114th) to Northeast Second Street, avoiding the neighborhood impacts at Main Street. It then tunnels under 110th Avenue and Northeast Fourth Street to avoid traffic impacts. The South Bellevue station will be the same size as Sound Transit proposes yet closer to I-90, enabling more convenient access from the freeway.

No changes to the downtown Bellevue station will be required. In short, the new alignment should produce similar ridership at similar cost to Sound Transit's preferred alternative, but without the unacceptable impacts to the city.

Sound Transit declined to conduct the study of this alignment, citing budget and schedule impacts. This left Bellevue with the choice of sacrificing its neighborhoods to light rail or spending up to $670,000 on an engineering study. While this is a large sum for Bellevue, it pales in comparison to $150 million for a tunnel or the inevitable legal fees associated with continued disagreement.

It is a price I feel we must pay to protect our residents and it is my hope that upon completion of the study, Sound Transit will adopt this new alignment so that we can move forward together as partners over the next decade.

Kevin Wallace is a member of the Bellevue City Council.

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