Bellevue megadeveloper Kemper Freeman and other longtime light-rail opponents are supporting a slate of candidates in this November's Bellevue City Council elections that, Freeman hopes, will stymie plans to build light rail at-grade through downtown Bellevue (where most of Freeman's developments are centered). Freeman, along with members of the anti-light-rail Eastside Transportation Coalition, has given thousands of dollars to the four candidates—more than $3,500 altogether.
In an interview with PubliCola, Freeman made no bones about his desire to halt light rail construction or at least to force light rail underground through Bellevue or, alternately, away from the city center. "Unless you want to just wipe Bellevue off the map, and that may be what some people want, you won't support" putting light rail on the surface through downtown Bellevue, Freeman says.
Light-rail opponents, having lost their battle against rail in general, are now concentrating on influencing light rail's route through the city: If light rail goes through downtown Bellevue along Bellevue Way, they want it underground (a change that would add as much as half a billion dollars to the cost); and if they can't get it underground, they want it moved away from neighborhoods and businesses, to the Burlington Northern Santa Fe right-of-way just east of I-405.
The slate of candidates are: Incumbent council member Don Davidson, incumbent council member Conrad Lee, Kevin Wallace, who's challenging incumbent council member Patsy Bonincontri, and Jennifer Robertson, running for the seat that opened when council member Phil Noble died.
Davidson and Lee both opposed building light rail on I-90 and now support moving the new line to the BNSF alignment; Wallace and Robertson, too, support that change. Lee says the BNSF route is more "cost-effective" and would have higher ridership. When I pointed out that Sound Transit's analysis shows ridership four times higher for the Bellevue Way route, Conrad responded that if the county moved its bus service to serve light rail, ridership would increase. The BNSF route, he said, is "less expensive and has the least impact to the community and the neighborhoods, and ... because it's closer to the freeway, it would actually carry more traffic." (Light rail supporters maintain that it makes more sense to build rail stops near population centers). In February, the current Bellevue City Council ruled out the BNSF alignment, identifying Bellevue Way as the city's preferred alignment.
If the four were elected, they would make up a 4-3 majority of council members opposed to at-grade light rail through downtown Bellevue. An anti-rail bloc could hold up light rail through permitting and litigation, or, at the very least, lobby to reopen the process; Sound Transit's board adopted the downtown, at-grade option as its preferred alignment earlier this year.
Lee says he personally has no intention of holding up light rail permits, but adds somewhat cagily, "Right now, the majority [on the council] is supporting the Bellevue Way alignment. If four of us, for some reason, didn't support it... then we'd have to figure out how to convince Sound Transit to change their decision."
Would that mean holding up Sound Transit's permits, or suing the agency?
"We have to go through the permitting processes and consider the concerns of the neighborhoods, look at land use considerations—all sorts of things," Lee said. "But we’ve got to do it according to law. If they meet the requirements, maybe they get the permits—unfortunately, that’s the way the law works." He adds: "Hopefully Sound Transit will listen to the public as to what the logical route would be." In fact, light rail passed in Bellevue with 58 percent support—the second highest "yes" vote of any city after Seattle. Light rail also has strong support from Bellevue's business establishment, with the Bellevue Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Bellevue Association endorsing last year's light-rail expansion measure.
Although Lee wouldn't go so far as to proposing holding up Sound Transit's permits, Freeman—a longtime opponent of light rail who believes it would adversely impact traffic in downtown Bellevue—did.
"Sound Transit's going to need permits, it's going to need [environmental impact] statements. They need the city of Bellevue's approval for that. They can't just say, 'Too bad, we'll just do whatever we want in your city.' Nobody has that right," Freeman says. He adds that "to the extent that the city council understands" light rail's negative impact, "I don't think any of them will go along with it. How could the city council go along with a project that destroys downtown mobility?"
He adds: "The city of Bellevue can't tolerate this disruption that cuts across the main flow of traffic any more than Seattle could have run the [downtown transit] tunnel up University Street instead of down Third Avenue."
Freeman, through his company Kemper Holdings, has given $500 to Wallace, $1,000 to Davidson, and $1,000 to Lee. Additionally, he has also reportedly written a letter to around 4,000 Bellevue residents on Robertson's behalf. The candidates have also received money from the (largely Freeman-funded Eastside Business Alliance, as well as several founding members of the Eastside Transportation Coalition).
The strongest members of the slate, Eastside observers believe, are incumbent Davidson, challenger Wallace, and open-seat contender Robertson. Davidson is a strong incumbent; Wallace has raised more than $65,000 to opponent Patsy Bonincontri's $7,600; and of Robertson's two opponents, one is barely campaigning, and the other is considered a long shot.