» City of Bellevue will get its desired underground segment through downtown thanks to an agreement from Sound Transit.
At a cost of $2.5 billion, Seattle’s planned East Link light rail extension project is one of the nation’s largest and most expensive transit expansion programs, which makes it remarkable in itself. A new connection across Lake Washington and into the cities of Bellevue and Redmond will significantly decrease transit times for intercity trips in the region and attract about 50,000 riders a day once it is completed in 2023.
The real achievement of the project, though, is its response to local demands in the form of the construction of a tunnel through Downtown Bellevue, agreed upon by the transit agency Sound Transit last week.
The passage in 2008 by Seattle region voters of the Sound Transit 2 package of bond releases guaranteed that local funding would be available to construct new lines extending the original Seattle light rail line from downtown to Sea-Tac Airport, which opened in 2009. East Link is the largest funded segment, though additional lines running north and south are also planned.
Once it became clear that light rail would be running through Bellevue, the city council made apparent its interest in tunneling the section of the line through the business district. From a point of regional equity, that might have made sense (since Seattle had its own downtown tunnel), but according to initial studies it would cost up to $1 billion more than a surface-level line. With broad streets and thus plenty of potential right-of-way, there would be little reason to spend so much.
But further engineering studies suggested that the tunnel would cost only about $320 million over the surface line, and the city agreed to chip in half of the extra costs, making it feasible to include the underground segment in the project. After Sound Transit’s agreement, the city has until November 14 to sign the accord, settling the matter once and for all. Though opposition from Bellevue developer Kemper Freeman — who has been fighting light rail expansion into the city for a decade — remains an issue, the path forward seems to be construction beginning in 2015 or 2016, including a tunnel.
What is intriguing here is that Sound Transit, which has the legal right to build the project as it wishes, is choosing to develop a project that costs more because it is interested in acquiring the support of Bellevue’s local government. The $160 million it has agreed to further contribute to the project’s costs to satisfy local demands could have been spent on another project.
And there may be an argument for putting the line underground. At the Rail~Volution conference in Washington earlier this month, Arlington County Board Chairman Christopher Zimmerman argued that the long-term benefits of digging tunnels for rail projects more than make up for their higher costs. The theory goes that development is more likely to follow when the noise and visual intrusion of trains are out of sight and mind, even as stations themselves are easily accessible.
I am not particularly convinced of the necessity of a downtown tunnel through Bellevue considering that there is plenty of space on the street — nor is it clear to me that it will bring economic development to the area that would not have been possible were the line on the surface. While the Washington Metro, with its very long trains, huge ridership demands, and third-rail propulsion, cannot be installed on the street (and thus can only be placed in a reserved corridor either above or under ground), Seattle’s Link light rail is designed specifically to be able to act as a tramway on surface streets. While the question in D.C. is whether to put metro extensions underground or along a highway right-of-way, the question in Seattle is whether to place light rail underground or along far more pedestrian-accessible surface streets. So the lessons of the nation’s capital region may not apply to the Pacific Northwest.
But the broader point here is the use of democracy in the decision-making process; regional agencies like Sound Transit have a responsibility to be responsive both to metropolitan and local priorities. In this situation, while the choice of an underground route for East Link in Downtown Bellevue may not be ideal from a policy or fiscal perspective, it is a respond to local demands expressed through the city council. It would be difficult to envision how the project could be pursued if it were designed in opposition to local interests.
Of course, the decision of the City of Bellevue to contribute to the costs of the tunneling has played a significant role in making this possible. Negotiating with local interests — and responding to their demands — is always simpler when they are willing to help pay for the things they desire. The question is how to negotiate with groups or municipalities that cannot afford to do so.
Image above: Conceptual image of East Link light rail crossing Lake Washington, from Sound Transit