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Originally published October 16, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 18, 2007 at 10:52 AM

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Election 2007

Transit package's Eastside benefits debated

The centerpiece of Proposition 1 on the Eastside would be a 15-mile light-rail line through Mercer Island and downtown Bellevue to the south...

Seattle Times Eastside bureau

Eastside light rail

If Proposition 1 passes, an Eastside light-rail line would be built.

Length: About 15 miles

Route: Across Interstate 90 bridge, through Mercer Island and downtown Bellevue to Overlake neighborhood in Redmond. Exact route would be chosen late next year. Commute between Overlake and downtown Seattle would be 30 minutes, and 20 minutes between Seattle and downtown Bellevue.

Stations: About nine, including one each in Seattle and Mercer Island, two in downtown Bellevue and up to four in the Bel-Red Corridor and Overlake neighborhood. Trains would arrive every nine minutes during rush hour and every 15 minutes at other times.

Cost: In 2006 dollars, about $3.5 billion with a downtown Bellevue tunnel, about $3 billion without a tunnel.

Ridership: About 45,000 people a day by 2030

Timeline: Construction would not start until at least 2012. The line is estimated to open to Overlake Hospital Medical Center in Bellevue in 2021. The remainder of the line to south Redmond, near the Microsoft campus, would open in 2027.

The centerpiece of Proposition 1 on the Eastside would be a 15-mile light-rail line through Mercer Island and downtown Bellevue to the south end of Redmond, bringing high-

capacity transit across Lake Washington for the first time.

But like most of the region, the Eastside still seems to be sizing up the proposition.

Many of the roads-and-transit measure's most active opponents, including developer Kemper Freeman, former state Sen. Jim Horn and engineer Jim MacIsaac, hail from the Eastside.

And yet the measure also enjoys wide support from the area's business community, including Microsoft, Puget Sound Energy and several chambers of commerce. The Bellevue and Issaquah city councils — and many of the Eastside's state lawmakers — endorse the plan.

"People are kind of weighing the options, wading through this," said pollster Stuart Elway, whose survey last month found 54 percent support for the measure, which would increase sales and car-tab taxes in most of Snohomish, King and Pierce counties.

The Eastside will play a critical role in Proposition 1's fate, along with the other four voting areas: Seattle, South King County, Pierce and Snohomish counties, Elway said. Support for the measure is so tenuous that it would take only one area voting no by a large margin to sway the results.

"No area of the region can pass it, but just about any [one] can sink it," Elway said.

To supporters, the measure would bring a desperately needed boost to Eastside transportation, with light-rail trains weaving past skyscrapers and the Microsoft campus, new lanes on Interstate 405 between Bellevue and Renton, better HOV connections, and partial funding for a new Highway 520 bridge.

"People say we've got to do something" about congestion, said Bellevue Deputy Mayor John Chelminiak. "There is an awful lot for the Eastside and there's an awful lot for Bellevue in this package."

Many of the opponents save their biggest criticism for light rail, which they say is too expensive and inefficient. A bus-rapid-transit system could be built within a couple of years, rather than the 2027 estimate for the entire Eastside rail line, and carry at least five times more people, they say.

Freeman's companies have given $200,000 to NoToProp1.org, making him the largest donor by far to the opposition campaign.

Proposition 1 would devote much of its money to light rail, a form of transit that is politically popular but does little to fix congestion, he said.

"How could rational people get so far down in something that doesn't have a footing?" Freeman said. The measure "eats up all the resources that anyone is going to want to spend on transportation and we get close to nothing."

The Eastside rail line would be part of a 50-mile expansion of light rail, including extensions to Lynnwood and Tacoma. The line over Lake Washington would bring trains holding up to 600 people, stopping at each station about every nine minutes during rush hour, according to Sound Transit.

Westbound passengers could stay on the train to head north to Lynnwood or switch trains at the Seattle transit tunnel to go south to Tacoma or Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. About 45,000 people a day would ride the Eastside line by 2030, officials say.

Some of the biggest concerns from Eastside residents are about where the line would go, though Sound Transit wouldn't pick a route until late next year. This is especially true south of downtown Bellevue, where the trains would run past the Mercer Slough Nature Park and possibly near homes.

Some residents there are opposing Proposition 1, in part, they say, because the trains could block car traffic and require the removal of scores of homes.

Proposition 1 also is raising tensions between some Bellevue and Redmond leaders. The Bellevue City Council has pushed Sound Transit to study a tunnel through downtown Bellevue, but the tunnel would cost an extra $500 million, raising the cost of an Eastside rail line to about $3.5 billion.

Sound Transit already says the line won't reach downtown Redmond unless the agency can find more money over the next decade. A Bellevue tunnel could make that even less likely, officials say.

Redmond Mayor Rosemarie Ives came out against Proposition 1 in recent weeks. She said the measure shouldn't bind transit and roads into one package and doesn't devote enough money to HOV improvements and Highway 520. And the Eastside rail line stopping at Redmond's Overlake neighborhood is "very disappointing."

The line would end near Microsoft but would be too short to adequately serve areas farther east, such as Redmond Ridge, Sammamish and Duvall, she said.

If Bellevue is going to insist on a tunnel, it should pay for the extra cost, Ives said.

Bellevue Mayor Grant Degginger said a tunnel needs to be studied because his city is the second-largest city in the county, with little downtown right of way to spare.

"You have to be realistic," he said. Downtown "has to be served in an appropriate way."

Ashley Bach: 206-464-2567 or abach@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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