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Bellevue's Preferred Rail Alignment Doesn't Stack Up

By Erica C. Barnett August 12, 2010

The Sound Transit board's capital committee got briefed by consultants and staff this afternoon on two potential options for the South Bellevue portion of East Link light rail. One, the so-called B7 alignment, is the preferred option of a majority of the Bellevue City Council. That route, which Sound Transit opposes because it doesn't meet the agency's environmental and cost standards, would run across the Mercer Slough wetland preserve (pictured above) and in the abandoned Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad right-of-way alongside I-405, bypassing downtown Bellevue as well as the existing South Bellevue Park-and-Ride.  As we've reported before, a Sound Transit study found that that alignment had the lowest ridership, served the fewest businesses, and cost the most of any potential alignment.

The second alignment, B2M, would run alongside the Mercer Slough and up 112th Ave. NE into downtown Bellevue, stopping at the existing park-and-ride. The Sound Transit board prefers this alignment.

Today's discussion was a technical briefing, but it included potentially negative news for supporters of B7. Here's a sampling of what the board was told:

• Completing the study of the South Bellevue alignment will take until 2012, which is past the deadline for the board to decide which South Bellevue alignment to build. If the board decided to move forward with B7, it would be doing so without complete information about the cost and safety risks of building the alignment, which would require new bridges in a peat surface that is continually shifting, posing a risk to bridge supports. As board chair Fred Butler put it, "Without additional information, there would be a risk of uncertainty. [The study of B7] doesn't support our schedule."

• The BNSF right-of-way would have to be drastically widened to accommodate light rail---from around 10 feet to between 40 and 50. A consultant told the committee that the study of the BNSF portion of the route "didn't reflect how complex that project would be."

• The impacts on wetlands would be comparable between the two plans, and could be dealt with through engineering and mitigation.

• B7 supporters have said they want a new park-and-ride along the route, in addition to the existing South Bellevue Park-and-Ride. Consultants presented two potential options. The first, on the west side of I-405, would require the removal of 12 single-family homes and would cost about $170 million. The second, which would tower above the freeway itself, would be right next to the Mercer Slough Park and would cost about $210 million. Both would include spaces for about 1,400 cars. Last week, Sound Transit announced that it now faces a budget shortfall of $3.9 billion over 30 years.

Because the B7 alignment is already more expensive than Sound Transit's preferred alternative, the two versions of the alignment (with a park-and-ride on the west side and the east side of I-405, respectively), the overall cost of the B7 alignment would be between $130 million and $170 million higher than Sound Transit's preferred alignment. As we reported recently LINK, Bellevue stands to lose more than $1 billion over 30 years due to a revenue shortfall, making extra bells and whistles (like the park-and-ride and a planned downtown Bellevue tunnel) look unlikely.

Board member Jan Drago, who opposes the B7 route, asked rhetorically, "I thought the idea was to move the alignment away from single-family neighborhoods. (The Surrey Downs neighborhood has been vocally opposed to rail because they think it will increase noise and traffic and decrease home values their community.) Don't both these move closer to the Entai neighborhood?" A staffer for the city of Bellevue acknowledged that was true, and added that the city hasn't done any outreach to the neighborhood or the 12 homeowners who would lose their houses to the park-and-ride.

• Finally, a consultant found that the noise impacts of both alignments would be negligible if Sound Transit does sufficient mitigation. However, she acknowledged that train bells could be "annoying" for nearby residents. "After you've listened to it 500 times a day, what would your level of annoyance be?"
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