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