» Sound Transit advances plans for East Link light rail; Bellevue council member leads push for I-405 alignment.
In few places in the country is the choice between a quality transit alignment and a miserable one as stark as in Bellevue, Washington, through which light rail trains from Seattle will run by 2020.
The Puget Sound’s Central Link light rail line opened last year between downtown Seattle and SeaTac Airport. It forms the spine of what will be a much larger system that eventually extends south, north, east, and potentially west. The East Link, a 14-mile line across Lake Washington from downtown Seattle, though downtown Bellevue and to Overlake, would open by 2020 according to current Sound Transit plans and serve more than 45,000 daily passengers at a cost of a bit less than $3 billion. It’s a huge project.
But getting the specifics right about the corridor will make a big difference in whether light rail is well used in the eastern suburbs. Its exact route will be decided this year now that Sound Transit has conducted extensive studies on the effectiveness of alternative alignments.
As the region’s second largest business district and a huge opportunity for increased development, downtown Bellevue must be adequately served by light rail — or it will face increasing traffic congestion and encourage commercial space sprawl due to a lack of interest in upped density downtown. Last year, the City of Bellevue made clear its preference for a tunnel routing through the center city, but the $500 million added cost of that alignment forced Sound Transit to recommend a surface corridor, even while encouraging Bellevue to find its own funds for an underground link. But city councilors have expressed strong resistance to the idea of running trains in the street.
Now Bellevue council member Kevin Wallace is pushing forward his “Vision Line” proposal that would run light rail trains along I-405, several blocks from the center of downtown. The councilman’s project appears to be gaining support among Bellevue politicians, who are afraid of angering locals fearful of street-running rail and who are worried about raising the necessary taxes to pay for a tunnel. Picking this alignment, however, would significantly decrease the number of riding passengers and dilute the positive effects of installing light rail in the first place.
Sound Transit has a responsibility to ensure that the project is built right. Good transit, in virtually any city and in any situation, doesn’t have stations along highway rights-of-way.
Mr. Wallace’s “Vision” is an effort to ensure that light rail never reaches the heart of downtown, pure and simple. Compared to the other routes being considered, it would have significantly lowered effects on the commutes of people into and out of Bellevue. Compared to the proposed tunnel and surface lines, which would attract roughly 8,000 daily trips for the downtown segment alone, the Vision proposal would get only 6,000. There’s a good explanation for why that’s true; while the lines stopping at the existing transit center in the center of downtown would be in easy walking distance of 93 developable acres, the vision line would only reach 64. In terms of jobs and employment, the difference is even more stark: 18,000 jobs versus 6,400; 25,100 housing units versus 6,800.
If anything, the ridership estimates of the Vision line seem too high, or those of the alternative alignments too low.
Indeed, by placing a light rail line directly adjacent to a freeway, not only is the station itself not directly in downtown, but fully one half of potential ridership in the walking radius is simply cutoff by the highway to the east. That’s especially true in this situation, because the next stop planned for the line, at Overlake Hospital, would be far easier to get to for virtually all of the riders east of the highway. So the Vision line’s downtown station would only serve people on the west side, a huge missing market for such a big investment as a light rail station.
In other words, though there’s only a 1,500-foot distance between the proposed stations, the difference in access will be tremendous.
Mr. Wallace claims that his preference is for the tunnel, but that he is unwilling to use Bellevue money for the $300 million added cost of that project — he thinks Sound Transit should pay. Seattle, after all, didn’t have to pay directly for the tunnel to the University of Washington currently under construction.
The fallacy in that argument is that funding for light rail expansion is distributed by sales tax revenue, per affected area. So Seattle, in a way, did choose to pay for that tunnel; it could have saved money for something else had it opted for a surface alignment (though in the case of the University Link, only a tunnel alignment was possible). Mr. Wallace’s “savings” also ignore the enormous development potential — and added tax base — made possible by the construction of a station in the heart of downtown, since light rail’s capacity will increase the ability of downtown to handle added business and residents. This is something you’d expect the councilman to understand, since he’s a real estate developer himself.
There are other, less obvious reasons why a light rail station adjacent to the freeway would be so problematic. Such stops are frequently isolated, promote a feeling of insecurity, and difficult to get to, because they’re high up on an elevated viaduct adjacent to a roaring roadway. Anyone who’s willing to put transit riders in such an environment during their daily commutes is ignoring the humanity of those passengers and giving an undue preference to drivers, who apparently have the full right to downtown streets.
And that’s striking at the heart of the issue: the councilman is willing to continue the dominance of automobiles on the downtown’s roadways, despite explosive growth and the construction of high-rise residences and commercial buildings. This is an environment in which walking should be promoted. A surface light rail route would do that well, since it would make getting to stations easy, all while operating in roadways wide enough to allow trains to run in the center of the roadway along with cars on both sides. All at a cheap cost.
Yet Bellevue is afraid of the effects on traffic and on the general downtown environment. Those fears are overstated and closed to the possibility of using light rail as a catalyst to reshape the streetscape.
There are plenty of examples around the world where light rail has been implemented while improving the built environment of urban zones. Paris’ Tramway Line 3 operates in a grass-covered right-of-way along a completely renovated set of boulevards that are a pleasure to walk or bike on. In Nantes, the tram’s construction allowed for a complete rethink of the city’s downtown streets, with the results being a fantastic environment in which to stroll and shop. Each of these French transit lines carry more than 100,000 daily passengers.
If Bellevue wants to save money by not building a tunneled link, it could learn from those French examples. They have created great urban environments that this Washington city could well emulate. A highway alignment for light rail will do nothing of the sort.
Mr. Wallace’s argument, which is premised on the idea that a tunneled route is too expensive and that a street-running route is too dangerous, ignores the billions spent on roads and the danger of automobiles. Meanwhile, it ignores the potential advantages to the pedestrian environment made possible with street-running rail. It is a heavily biased perspective and one that should not influence Sound Transit decision-making.
Image above: Proposed Downtown Bellevue Vision Line Station Map, from Vision Line Report