Don't Put A Light Rail Station Next to a Freeway, Data Edition

By Dan Bertolet February 5, 2010

Bellevue City Council member Kevin Wallace wrote recently that locating the downtown Bellevue Link light rail station next to I-405 would "maximize transit-oriented development (TOD) opportunities." That claim has been challenged qualitatively, but what do the cold, hard numbers say?

Applying the methodology described in Futurewise's Transit-Oriented Communities Blueprint to a quarter-mile radius area around the two station options (shown in the aerial photo above), yields the following estimated capacity for jobs and housing based on current zoning:

I detect a pattern. Compared to the I-405 location proposed in Wallace's plan, the originally proposed Transit Center location provides nearly 50 percent more developable land, and the potential to hold about three times as many jobs, and almost four times as many housing units.

What else is there to say?  Jobs and housing within easy walking distance of the station are the most fundamental ingredients of successful transit-oriented development (TOD).

It's tough to quantify the value of the greater buildout capacity in the Transit Center station area. But over the long term, that advantage, combined with the benefit of not having a freeway cut a gigantic gash right through the middle of the station area, would dwarf any short term savings that might come with the I-405 alignment.

So why then, is the I-405 plan even being considered? One obvious answer is that politicians are pandering to their most vocal constituencies, whose attitudes are summed up well in this Seattle Times report:
"Scores of homeowners along Bellevue Way Southeast, and condominium owners on 118th Avenue Southeast, strongly oppose putting the line near their buildings or neighborhoods. They say the trains would be noisy, increase traffic, bring crime to the area and cause a loss of property and property value for homes next to the line."

Caving to those myopic gripes—some of which are demonstrably false—is lack of leadership, plain and simple.

Worries about the negative impact of construction on downtown businesses are legitimate. But that impact would be temporary, and can be mitigated. And in the end, light rail will bring more foot traffic and increased vitality for downtown businesses.

But some speculate that council members are playing a different game. The Bellevue City Council would have no qualms approving the Transit Center alignment if it was underground. But a tunnel would cost an extra $300 million and Bellevue doesn't want to pay for it. Meanwhile, Sound Transit—stretched thin by dropping tax revenues—is in no position to fork out $300 million either.

And so might it be that Wallace's plan (and perhaps also the new Mercer Slough alignment?) is actually a tactic to strong-arm Sound Transit into helping fund a downtown tunnel? Like I said, speculation. But the truth is, the tunnel is the best solution, and it would be great if Sound Transit and Bellevue could find a way to work together, share the extra expense, and get the right thing done. After all, people have been building subways for more than a century.
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