In a crowded and often heated public meeting at Bellevue City Hall yesterday, proponents of the so-called B7 Sound Transit light rail alignment through the city objected loudly to a Sound Transit presentation that did not include the alignment. The point of the presentation was to gauge Bellevue residents' preferences among several different options for each section of the 112th Avenue alignment, which would run along 112th Ave. SE through the Surrey Downs neighborhood toward downtown Bellevue.
The Sound Transit board prefers the 112th alignment because it has higher ridership and serves more jobs and residences than all the other alternatives, and because it serves the South Bellevue park and ride. A slim majority of the Bellevue City Council, along with many residents of South Bellevue, prefer B7 for precisely the opposite reasons: It would run along I-405, far away from most businesses and residences, and would skip the park and ride.
It didn't take long for last night's meeting to devolve into a debate about the two potential alignments. Asked to use special controllers to vote between various options for each segment of the 112th Ave. alignment (for example: On the middle of the street vs. on the side), participants became increasingly rowdy, protesting loudly that they didn't like any of the options.
"Is there a way just to say no?" one woman asked. "Not 'no preference,' but no?" Another groused to me, "They're giving us these nebulous, arbitrary options, but there's no way to say 'none of the above.'" After a Sound Transit moderator explained that "no preference" meant "no strong feelings about any alternative" (prompting bitter laughter around the room), people started yelling, "Don't vote! Don't vote!"
Participants argued that Sound Transit's preferred alignment would destroy property values, ruin the wetlands around the Mercer Slough on the south end of Bellevue, and create unbearable traffic near Bellevue High School, which is undergoing a major, yearslong renovation. Several also brought up the fate of the Bellevue Club, a country club and golf course that would lose a few tennis courts to rail right-of-way.
"You don't live here!" one man shouted at the moderator. "Do you belong to the Bellevue Club?"
"You're going to kill the old Bellevue," another yelled. "The construction is going to drive people away and the old area will die!"
Some residents brought up slightly more specific concerns. For example, one woman said that if Sound Transit picks 112th, the agency should buy up not just houses in the right-of-way (as many as 46 residences could be displaced under one option, but other options have much less impact), it should buy nearby houses too, because "no one will want to live there."
"Why don't you buy the houses that people don't want to live in anymore because they don't want to live next to Sound Transit?" she said.
Another woman predicted economic devastation. "No matter what you do on 112th, you're going to impact the value of all the homes and businesses around there. It's going to be a huge socioeconomic impact. ... People just aren't going to come here."
Contrary to the Bellevue residents' statements, study after study has shown that light rail actually increases property values, particularly around stations. Frequently, the jumps have been in the double digits. Additionally, rail decreases congestion by taking pressure off streets as people use transit instead of driving. In almost all cases, it's a win-win.
But fears about light rail, like fears about new multifamily housing, are largely irrational: People don't know what it will be like to live with rail, so they oppose it. If Bellevue residents were willing to drive out of their city and check out rail in Seattle, though—I suggest walking from the Columbia City station through the neighborhood to downtown Columbia City—I think they'd be pleasantly surprised.