Sound Transit’s East Link project has just moved one major step closer to becoming a reality. After many months of discussion and negotiation, Bellevue’s City Council has voted unanimously to authorize the city to enter into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Sound Transit regarding the project, one of several major expansions of the Link light rail system approved by voters in 2008.
When East Link is completed, it will be possible to travel by train from Seattle through Mercer Island and Bellevue to NPI’s hometown of Redmond – or vice versa.
In a statement, King County Executive Dow Constantine, who also serves on Sound Transit’s board of directors, praised the council for its unanimous vote.
“I applaud the Bellevue City Council for their action tonight to move forward as planned with East Link,” Constantine said. “Bellevue voters have consistently supported the expansion of light rail as a way to link businesses, residential neighborhoods, and cities throughout our region”
“Tonight’s vote reflects the negotiated outcome between Bellevue and Sound Transit that brings us one step closer to construction. I look forward to continuing our work together for a stronger economy and regional mobility.”
Sound Transit’s board has already authorized Sound Transit’s chief executive officer, Joni Earl, to sign the agreement on ST’s behalf. Tonight’s vote was the last hurdle to making the Memorandum of Understanding formal.
The MOU, which runs twenty-four pages, is a detailed, legally-binding agreement which stipulates how Bellevue and Sound Transit will go about financing and constructing East Link’s alignment within the city limits.
Crucially, the agreement has settled the dispute over East Link’s alignment through downtown Bellevue. Under the terms of the MOU, Sound Transit and the city have agreed that East Link will go underground through downtown, with the city helping to cover the added expense of constructing a tunnel. The city has agreed to make a contribution of up to $160 million to the cost of the project.
In East Link planning documents, the proposed tunnel alignment is referred to as Alternative C9T. Here is how it is described in the East Link Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS for short – what a mouthful):
Preferred Alternative C9T begins on the east side of 112th Avenue SE and then transitions to the west side of 112th Avenue SE at SE 6th Street. Preferred Alternative C9T then travels at-grade on the west side of 112th Avenue SE before turning west at Main Street to enter the tunnel portal. The tunnel continues on the south side of Main Street before turning north under 110th Avenue NE.
To maintain access to the Surrey Downs neighborhood, this alternative includes realigning SE 4th Street through Surrey Downs Park to connect to 112th Avenue SE further south, forming a four-way, signalized intersection at SE 6th Street.
Preferred Alternative C9T includes the Bellevue Transit Center Station at 110th Avenue NE, with a station entrance at NE 2nd Place and south of NE 6th Street and an optional entrance on the southwest corner of NE 6th Street and 110th Avenue NE. From this station, Preferred Alternative C9T continues north to NE 6th Street, where it turns east, exits the tunnel, and transitions to an elevated profile in the center of NE 6th Street, and then swings to the north side of NE 6th Street to cross 112th Avenue NE, I-405, and 116th Avenue NE.
Preferred Alternative C9T then turns north along the BNSF Railway right-of-way to cross NE 8th Street and reach the elevated Hospital Station.
While building a tunnel does increase the cost of building East Link, we agree with Bellevue and Sound Transit that it’s a good investment. Having a tunnel alignment through downtown reduces travel time and eliminates the problem of pedestrians, bicyclists, or motorists turning into the path of a train. A tunnel alignment also makes it easier for Link to operate through downtown in bad weather.
Building a tunnel will require years of street work in downtown Bellevue, which some businesses and residents are already dreading.
However, Sound Transit has pledged to work with the community to mitigate construction impacts. The agency has learned a great deal from building Central Link, and Bellevue will benefit immensely from that institutional knowledge.
Sound Transit still does not have the money to get East Link all the way out to downtown Redmond. At present, funding only exists to get the line to Overlake, which is home to Microsoft’s main campus. We consider the extension to downtown Redmond to be extremely important, as do Microsoft and the city of Redmond, and we hope the money can be found to build it.
This unfunded section of East Link is known as Segment E in planning documents, but as Sound Transit works on getting it funded, it might easily become known as Redmond Link, just as the last segment of Central Link (which opened in December 2009) became known as Airport Link.
Tonight’s vote also represents another victory for progressives on the Eastside over Bellevue Collection owner and Tim Eyman benefactor Kemper Freeman, Jr. Freeman, who fiercely opposes East Link, has gone to extreme lengths to block the project.
In 2008, he spent thousands of dollars trying to defeat Sound Transit 2 (and lost). Then, he tried to convince the Supreme Court to bar the state from transferring I-90’s transit lanes over to Sound Transit so tracks can be installed on them.
When that didn’t work, he bankrolled Tim Eyman’s I-1125 (which included a provision intended to prevent light rail from ever crossing Lake Washington) and tried to install more candidates sympathetic to his views on the Bellevue City Council. Happily, I-1125 is failing and all three of the candidates Freeman backed in contested city council races are losing.
NPI has been fighting for nearly a decade to stop Freeman, Eyman, and their road warrior friends from interfering with the construction of Link light rail. It’s been a long, long journey, and it’s not over yet. But, as with today’s vote, we continue to surmount the obstacles they’ve put in front of us. Our region desperately needs light rail, and we remain committed to helping Sound Transit ensure that it delivers on its promise to build the system the voters approved.