This editorial will appear in Monday’s print edition.
A fight’s brewing in Bellevue that could have unfortunate consequences for light-rail users in the South Sound and across the Puget Sound region.
The value of the Sound Transit light-rail system depends on its proximity to people and the places they want to go. Opposition to the regional transit agency’s preferred light-rail route in Bellevue risks thwarting the system’s ability to deliver.
Eastside leaders have long been opposed to Sound Transit’s plans to run light rail on surface streets through downtown Bellevue. They say that construction would disrupt businesses and that trains would clog traffic.
The opposition is led by powerful interests that don’t like any light rail. Anti-transit developer Kemper Freeman Jr. owns a good chunk of downtown Bellevue and has led past fights against Sound Transit ballot measures. He’s also given heavily to local politicians. In November, he bought himself a majority on the Bellevue City Council.
The council had previously backed taking the light-rail line underground, an option that would cost an extra $500 million that Sound Transit doesn’t have.
When city officials balked at paying the additional cost, Sound Transit went back to the drawing board and developed a shorter and less expensive tunnel. But it would still cost $300 million, and no one’s stepped forward to foot the bill.
Now a majority of council members apparently wants Sound Transit to skip downtown altogether – as well as the central transit center and south Bellevue’s park-and-ride lot. Four council members elected in November favor the so-called “Vision Line” that would run on elevated tracks alongside Interstate 405.
The line’s “downtown” stop would be nearly a mile from Bellevue’s core. Proponents suggest bridging the distance with covered moving sidewalks. As transit advocates point out, if moving sidewalks are necessary, the line probably isn’t in the right spot.
The Vision Line would spare downtown Bellevue interests at the expense of the rest of the region’s transit users. Imagine disembarking from Tacoma’s Link trains at the edge of Interstate 705, or getting no closer to downtown Seattle shops and offices than Interstate 5. That’s not the kind of connectivity that encourages transit use.
The proposed Bellevue line is nearly identical to another alignment that Sound Transit has already rejected, partly because it promised significantly lower ridership. Nonetheless, the transit agency has agreed to study the Vision Line’s cost and ridership. That study is due to be released soon.
The Sound Transit board has a responsibility to hear community concerns and address them to the extent possible. It also has an obligation to every taxpayer in the transit district to build a system that works, not one that forsakes future viability for short-term peace.