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May 27, 2011 at 11:17 AM

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The cost of dithering: Bellevue rail delayed to 2023

Posted by Mike Lindblom

Sound Transit executives broke the bad news Thursday the agency has already lost a year delivering the East Link rail line to Bellevue and Overlake -- so the trains won't arrive until at least 2022, or even 2023 if the route includes a tunnel in downtown Bellevue.

When voters approved a 15-year suburban rail construction plan in 2008, the agency planned to reach Bellevue in 2020 and reach Overlake, near the Microsoft world headquarters, a year later.

But the regional transit agency and the Bellevue city government have failed to agree yet on two crucial issues:

* Bellevue wants a tunnel from about Main Street to Northeast Sixth Street, so trains don't cross busy east-west streets and worsen the traffic congestion. A tunnel costs about $276 million more than a surface line, raising the total to $2.8 billion ($2010). Sound Transit offered to pay $100 million while Bellevue supposedly would raise $158 million, nearly closing the gap.

* A slim 4-3 City Council majority has wanted the trackway to run along I-405 south of downtown, instead of a shorter route alongside the Surrey Downs neighborhood. Sound Transit engineers think the freeway route would add at least $150 million, mainly because it requires more spans of elevated trackway.

Ric Ilgenfritz, Sound Transit project development director, said talks are productive about tunnel cost-sharing, except that Bellevue won't finish a deal unless the sides agree on the southern approach route.

To some extent, government officials brought this problem on themselves. Intent on winning the 2008 election, the transit board under then-Chairman Greg Nickels avoided a public, bare-knuckle debate about the downtown and southern routes. Sound Transit staff clearly said then that cost estimates assumed an elevated line, so tunneling would require more funds.

Thursday, East Link manager Don Billen warned there could be additional delays, unless decisions are made this year. A final environmental-impact statement is due this summer.

A few transit-board members vented about setting deadlines. "This board is reaching the point where they have to pull together and choose a target," said Chairman Aaron Reardon, the Snohomish County executive.

"Here the mayor of Federal Way is asking us to do anything we can to get light rail into Federal Way, using the least expensive possible alignment, when the city of Bellevue is asking us to build the most expensive possible alignment," said Julia Patterson of Sea-Tac.

Bellevue Councilwoman Claudia Balducci, a transit-board member who supports the cheaper southern route, reassured fellow members the citizens of Bellevue support light rail. A letter by several business leaders urged the agency to more forward.

Joseph Rosmann of Surrey Downs, supporter of the I-405 route, said Friday: "I believe the whole exchange was scripted for the purpose of creating a public image that would make the city of Bellevue appear in a bad light." He said Sound Transit is skewing the comparison by ignoring the costs to build over weak soil near Mercer Slough and to protect the historic Winters House. Sound Transit also saddles the I-405 option with costs a bikeway and condemning two hotels, all unnecessary, said Rosmann, a member of Building a Better Bellevue.

"The problem starts with the people who have all the money," he said.

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Jim Brunner
Covers politics.

Keith Ervin
Covers the Eastside.

Andrew Garber
Covers politics and state government from Olympia.

Emily Heffter
Covers local government.

Mike Lindblom
Covers transportation.

Kyung Song
Covers politics and regional issues from Washington, D.C.

Lynn Thompson
Covers Seattle City Hall.

Bob Young
Covers King County and urban affairs.