By Tiffany Ran
Northwest Asian Weekly
Scott Rodgers, a CPA who works from home, can look out the window and see the neighboring Hilton Hotel and Bellevue Club. However, the view outside his window is set to change.
A year ago, Rodgers met Bellevue Club President Bill Thurston, who told him, “Things are changing, and you should probably take a look at this.” The East Link light rail project was set to be built on 112th Avenue Southeast, right outside their front doors.
Lines in the sand
On November 2008, voters approved a funding package for the East Link extension, an $18 billion mass-transit plan, which would extend the light rail from the International District to growing Asian communities like those in Bellevue, which has a 27.6 percent Asian population, and Redmond, with 25.3 percent. The light rail will run along I-90 to Mercer Island and into Bellevue.
However, upon reaching Bellevue, the route is a matter of choice. There are many possible routes for Sound Transit to consider, which have not only created a divide between Sound Transit and Bellevue City Council, but also within the council.
In 2009, Kevin Wallace and Jennifer Robertson were elected to the city council and endorsed a route that would cross east through the Mercer Slough and head north to downtown using the Burlington North Sante Fe Railroad route (eventually known as the B7 or B7R route), bypassing residential neighborhoods. But the route would create a lower ridership due to its distance from businesses and population centers.
This route differed from Sound Transit’s preferred route, which departs Bellevue Way heading north on 112th Avenue Southeast toward downtown.
Deputy Mayor Conrad Lee and Mayor Don Davidson joined Robertson and Wallace in supporting B7, while councilmembers John Chelminiak, Grant Degginger, and Claudia Balducci, a member of the Sound Transit board, supported Sound Transit’s preferred alignment along 112th.
“Sound Transit is not giving us a lot of time and you have two bodies, Sound Transit and the City of Bellevue. The question is, who makes the ultimate decision? Some of us believe it should be the Bellevue City Council that makes the final decision because it’ll affect our land use for the next 100 years. It’ll affect our taxing policy for the next 20 years,” said Lee.
Ultimately, the council voted 4–3 to reassert their preference for B7.
The majority favoring B7 also elected to spend more than $670,000 for an independent consultant to design and optimize the B7 route, later called the B7R, B7-revised.
However, the contracted report for B7R highlighted problems that were already acknowledged in Sound Transit’s evaluation. While the B7R route would spare residential homes, it would be more costly, have greater environmental impact, and lower ridership.
“I respect the fact that the City of Bellevue wanted to do their own independent analysis. In fact, I’m glad they did. It went to show that their findings supported Sound Transit’s conclusions,” said Thurston.
B7 or bust?
The data on B7R only affirms the frustration felt by some local residents like Sven Goldmanis of the Bellefield neighborhood on 112th.
“Four out of seven pushed for B7 knowing that even if they got B7, they couldn’t get the permits from the Washington Department of Transportation and the core of engineers. It was a shot in the dark. It wasted time and money,” said Goldmanis, a former city councilmember for Mercer Island.
“Did I know it was coming down 112th? Yes. Did I think in my wildest dreams that they would do the B7? Never. There is only one group that makes the decision for light rail and that is the Sound Transit board because it’s a regional plan,” said Goldmanis. “But apparently some of the city council didn’t understand that process.”
Now a five-year process, the prolonged discussion of the East Link expansion is not only taxing to Sound Transit’s schedule, but also to citizens.
“No one here has been able to sell a condo in four years. I’ve got several homeowners that really need to sell and they can’t. It’s a very scary situation to be in,” said Rodgers, who’s involvement in this issue led to his current position as president of the Carriage Place Condominiums Homeowners Association.
“For a long time, the council wasn’t in communication with Sound Transit because they had not been in agreement about which alignment they wanted. So when those discussions about mitigation should’ve already been happening, they weren’t, which has pushed it back,” said Betina Finley, a Bellevue resident and supporter of the Bellevue Way and 112th route.
While the city council worked to advance B7, local citizens and businesses banded together to discuss the options for Sound Transit’s preferred alignment.
Thurston proposed that the route run west for most of 112th to downtown. However, his plan would mean that the light rail would cut straight through Rodger’s condo and a few others west of 112th. Finley and Thurston notified residents by knocking on doors and speaking at meetings.
“[At that time,] no one from Sound Transit and the City of Bellevue had contacted us. We really felt like we were being treated as second class homeowners — even though we have 41 homeowners, people who have lived here long term,” said Rodgers.
In an informal survey conducted in his community, Rodgers found that nine out of 10 owners preferred to be acquired, rather than endure the construction.
“Everyone was so surprised when we stepped up and said, ‘Hey, we want to be bought out,’ but I don’t think anyone was looking at it from our perspective. We’d be so severely impacted that it totally changes our quality of life,” said Rodgers.
Most local residents along 112th were concerned with noise, construction, and their effects on property value. Shortly thereafter, both Sound Transit and the City of Bellevue increased their outreach to local citizens, but initial outreach efforts were often carried out separately, almost as separate campaigns.
In consideration of comments and feedback from local citizens and businesses, Sound Transit elected to move much of the alignment on 112th to the west side.
What seemed like consensus between everyone involved left another looming question. The city council agreed to a tunnel in downtown Bellevue to mitigate noise, traffic, and visual impacts on the surrounding neighborhood. Sound Transit’s board voted in July to approve of a route through Bellevue that includes the downtown tunnel.
However, the tunnel is contingent upon the council and Sound Transit’s board agreeing on a binding memorandum of understanding by Oct. 23.
Failure to establish a contract may push back construction further or lead Sound Transit to resort to a disruptive at-grade route through downtown. Residents fear that this will then lead to the city pursuing potential litigation.
An agreed-upon tunnel would cost $276 million more than a street-level alternative, and questions still exist as to how the city will come up with half the tunnel’s cost — about $160 million — requested by Sound Transit.
“My biggest concern with Bellevue’s well-being is taxes. We understand what makes businesses kick, so I want to make sure the taxes aren’t too high. If we have to pay more, Bellevue’s residents have to foot the bill. This impacts what other projects the city has to do for the next 10, 20 years,” said Lee.
Despite the disagreements, all involved in the light rail discussion can look forward to positive aspects of the expansion.
Sen. Patty Murray and the city council have expressed enthusiasm over the projected development of the Bel-Red Corridor, where Uwajimaya serves the local Asian community, to develop a mixed-use community reflective of the diversity and the diverse needs of the community — creating access to various modes of transportation, including light rail, and to living spaces, recreation areas, and additional service areas.
Goldmanis has spent about $100,000 fixing up his house, and Rodgers continues to work out of his home office looking out to 112th Ave SE. Neither really want to move, but both hope a resolution will be reached and that the day to move will come. (end)
Tiffany Ran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.