Rendering of the Wallace Vision Line by J. Craig Thorpe

[Editor's note: Yesterday, Bellevue City Council member Kevin Wallace wrote a defense in the Seattle Times of his proposal to move Sound Transit's proposed eastern light rail alignment from downtown Bellevue to the BNSF railroad tracks just east of I-405. We've written about Wallace's proposal, and similar proposals that would take rail away from homes, jobs, and the South Bellevue Park and Ride, here, here, here, here, and here. On Thursday, the Sound Transit board will receive cost and ridership analyses for the Vision Line. This post by Dan Bertolet, which originally ran on Hugeasscity last November, is being reposted here because the Bellevue rail issue is coming to a head.]

Getting the highest return on transit investments hinges on the creation of high-performing transit-oriented communities (TOC) around transit stations. And the easiest way to make sure that doesn't happen is to site stations next to large freeways. Yet this is exactly what newly elected Bellevue City Councilor Kevin Wallace has proposed, in his "Vision Line" plan that would move the downtown Bellevue Station from the ideally located downtown Bellevue transit center, over to the edge of I-405, about a quarter-mile to the east.

Maximizing the social and environmental benefits associated with high-performing TOC is relatively straightforward: you put stations where there are lots of people, jobs, and services within easy walking distance, or where there's at least a good future potential for those ingredients. And the downtown Bellevue transit center fits that bill—there's already a high concentration of jobs in downtown Bellevue, and the area is zoned to allow high housing density. The convenient connectivity to extensive bus service is also ideal.

Bellevue Transit Center. Photo by Dan Bertolet.

When you site a station next to a freeway, right away you're throwing away half of your walkshed (the walkable area around the station), because (1) the freeway itself obliterates a massive swath of land in the station area, and (2) few people will be willing to walk across the massive pedestrian barrier that is a freeway like I-405. Ridership depends on pedestrians and walkable destinations, and a freeway is anathema to both.

The Vision Line proposal would also add significant inconvenience to trips between different forms of transit, because it would force a rider transferring from bus to train to make an extra five-minute walk. The simplest way to kill transit ridership is to make it inconvenient. The Vision Liners' belief that the covered walkway shown in the rendering above would make up for the inconvenience of distance is wishful thinking.

The Vision Line was motivated by perceived problems with the two leading alternatives: tunneling through downtown Bellevue costs too much, and surface tracks through downtown are too disruptive. Cry me a river.

New light rail service represents an unprecedented opportunity to help transform Bellevue into a city that makes sense for the 21st Century, and most of the bill for it is being covered by taxpayers from across the region. But that awesome opportunity won't just be handed to the city—it will cost money, and the required changes won't be totally painless for everyone. On the other hand, compromises made now will be paid for a bazillion times over during the lifetime of the light rail line.

Bellevue, you're a smart, wealthy city. Step up and make sure this one gets done right.
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