Bellevue Wants Underground Tunnel for Link LRT, but Microsoft Balks

Bellevue Light Rail Options MapCut-and-Cover or bored tunnel would add hundreds of millions to the cost, but Seattle suburb thinks it’s worth the cost

King County, Washington’s voters approved a massive expansion for light rail in the region last November, agreeing to pay an additional sales tax for new lines heading north, south, and east built by Sound Transit. Seattle’s first light rail line, dubbed Central Link and running from downtown to the airport, is currently under construction, with the initial segment to open in June. Planning on East Link is already underway; it will run from downtown Seattle, across Mercer Island, through Bellevue, and finally to Overlake, with a potential future connection to downtown Redmond.

The Seattle Times reports that Bellevue is demanding that Sound Transit build a tunnel through its downtown, rather than running trains along surface streets. Choosing to run trains underground would up the cost of the route through Bellevue from $700 million to $1.3 or $1.4 billion, depending on how the tunnel is constructed. The city’s councilors argue that a surface train would congest the urban neighborhood’s streets.

Microsoft, on the other hand, suggests that Sound Transit should build the line along surface streets — to save money for the eventual connection to Redmond, where the company has offices its headquarters (Commenter John Jensen pointed out that Microsoft HQ are actually at Overlake). The board of the transit agency will make a definitive decision about the alignment on May 14.

So, is a tunnel worth more than half a billion dollars? I’m not sure.

But the consequences of not having a tunnel could be problematic. After all, Seattle’s light rail system is being designed to handle 4-car trains with a total length of 380 feet — that’s one long vehicle. Portland, on the other hand, has trains a maximum of 180 feet long. Sound Transit’s planners argue that Bellevue’s long blocks, compared to the short ones in Portland, would allow such long trains to run and stop on the streets in downtown Bellevue. But shorter trainsets already cause traffic congestion (and slowed transit service) where they’re used, and it’s likely that 108th and 110th Avenues, upon which the trains would travel, would suffer similarly. There’s also a case of regional equity to be made: if downtown Seattle gets a tunnel, why shouldn’t downtown Bellevue?

I’m not sure, however, that TOW has it right when he says that Microsoft should pay for the link to Redmond itself if there isn’t enough money for the link because of the Bellevue tunnel. Yes, the company has an interest in expanding access for its employees, and it has a responsibility to contribute — through taxes. If the link to Redmond is necessary, and if the tunnel in Bellevue’s construction is obligatory, Microsoft shouldn’t complain when its taxes, along with those of the companies around it, are increased. It should welcome the willingness of the public sector to push for improved transit. Microsoft isn’t at wrong in asking Bellevue to sacrifice for the sake of a longer route; it’s simply playing the political game, and it should be ready to help out, when the time comes, no matter the board’s decision.

Image above: Potential downtown Bellevue alignments, from the Seattle Times

8 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Big fan of the blog, but I think I should add some context:

    1. Voters approved a light rail package, which is consistent in either a tunnel or no-tunnel scenario, that goes to Bellevue and Overlake. Overlake is technically within Redmond and actually serve’s Microsoft’s main campus.

    Getting from Overlake to Downtown Redmond wouldn’t serve additional Microsoft office space, as far as I know, but would serve some of their employees. However, this span to Redmond wasn’t part of the package voters approved and as such we shouldn’t really expert additional miles to sprout from nowhere.

    2. Your post misses a huge detail: to fund a tunnel in Bellevue, the city would have to raise additional money itself to pay for the (at least) $500mn cost difference. Bellevue understands that and is expected to work with Sound Transit to identify revenue sources such as a LID for Downtown Bellevue or something else.

    3. Given point 2, it’s unlikely that even without a tunnel in Bellevue ST would have enough money left to get to Downtown Redmond. To consider that extension, there would have to be cost savings in the rest of the line and revenue numbers which cooperate. (Revenue is not cooperating right now.) There is a chance that Bellevue wouldn’t fund the entirety of the tunnel costs (as in, connections to the tunnel would be different than connections to a surface option where “different” means costlier), which could threaten a Downtown Redmond extension. But that extension wasn’t promised in the package voters approved and instead is a prime candidate for the next round of light rail construction.

  • John –
    Thanks for your clarifications. The question, then, is whether Sound Transit can safely pick the tunnel option for the extension even if funds aren’t entirely available at this point. Or is the cheaper surface route option the easier pick because at least funding is assured at this point?

  • Yonah-

    From what we’re hearing, the board will select two preferred alternative: a surface and a tunnel. For Bellevue to get its tunnel, it would have to identify funding and enter into an agreement as such. The very final decision doesn’t have to be made until after the EIS is completely done.

    Once again, great blog! I’m a huge fan and you do a great job covering transit across the nation.

  • Karl Tingwald

    A comparable situation is BART through Berkeley CA. Back in the 1960’s when BART was being planned, the city demanded trains be run underground for the entirety of the line in the city limits. BART made the right decision and forced the city itself to pay for the additional costs of running the line underground.

    I’d hope Sound Transit is going to do the same with Bellevue. What makes me laugh a little bit is the meager ridership projections in all three cases. Is the cost estimate for the entire east line, but the ridership for just the segment shown? If not, why is the project being considered? The cost effectiveness is surely not up to FTA new starts standards.

  • Karl, that is boardings just for the stations pictured.

    The entire East Link line is estimated to have ridership around 45,000.

  • jon

    when you are spending great sums of money on an investment to last a century or more, you might as well build it right the first time… go underground.

  • You write: “There’s also a case of regional equity to be made: if downtown Seattle gets a tunnel, why shouldn’t downtown Bellevue?”

    Because downtown Seattle is much bigger and denser than downtown Bellevue?

    Note that the original deal on BART required cities to pay the incremental cost of undergrounding if they demanded it. Only Berkeley did so, which is why BART is underground there.

    I don’t think the subway-service debate should be entirely about the interests of Microsoft. It should be about the travel time benefits of people riding through Bellevue, vs the cost of undergrounding, plus some consideration of the urban design impacts of each option.

  • In addition to the tunnel vs. light rail issue raised here are the larger concerns (raised by some in letters to the Times in response to their series “The train stops here”) that the light rail system will not help congestion and commuters and that the stations should be better coordinated to make connections for those riding the bus easier. Some detractors have said that the addition of tracks could increase suggestion. I think that these are important issues to keep in mind when considering building a tunnel with a possible $1.4 billion price tag.

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