In August 2020, Sound Transit staff and local leaders gathered to recognize completion of a brand-new transit tunnel in downtown Bellevue. It was the latest successful milestone in our mission to bring light rail, known as East Link, to King County’s second largest city and on to Redmond. As we celebrated the occasion, several of us noted the words above the tunnel entrance: “Bellevue Downtown Tunnel 2023.” We marveled at how soon light rail would arrive after years of effort and joked that we were now committed to an opening date for the fast, frequent and reliable transit connecting East King County to the rest of the region. It was stamped in concrete!
The announcement that Sound Transit’s Eastside light rail expansion will be delayed by at least a year came as a blow. The news that problems with the light rail track supports between Mercer Island and Seattle would require extensive repairs, coupled with announcements of delays for light rail extensions to Federal Way, Lynnwood and downtown Redmond was, to say the least, a huge disappointment.
But what if we opened an Eastside-only light rail line connecting Redmond to Bellevue, or even to Mercer Island, in 2023? Could we provide high-quality transit service to thousands of riders while repairs are completed on the rest of the line? In short, we can and should.
Here’s why: On-time opening of an Eastside-only starter light rail line would honor the preparations that Eastside cities have been making for years, with complementary investments in transportation, trails and transit-oriented land use planning. Bellevue alone is investing more than $230 million to fast-track 12 transportation projects to match the 2023 deadline. King County has worked tirelessly alongside several cities and communities to make progress on Eastrail, a 42-mile trail that will connect Eastside light rail and businesses like never before. And Bellevue has also partnered with Sound Transit to build up to 500 units of affordable housing with direct access to light rail in the Spring District. Both Redmond and Bellevue have been busy planning for additional transit-oriented development, including affordable housing, at most light rail stations along the East Link Corridor.
In addition, the growth that light rail is intended to serve hasn’t slowed down and won’t anytime soon. Because of the continued population growth, coupled with an influx of new businesses and an affordable housing crisis, we can’t afford to wait another year or more without new mobility solutions on the Eastside. People need ways to get around quickly, conveniently and reliably without their cars. This starter line will connect some of our fastest growing neighborhoods from Bellevue’s Downtown, the Spring District and Redmond’s Overlake area. It would also create connections to major employers, including Amazon in downtown Bellevue, Facebook in the Spring District and Microsoft’s campus around Overlake.
Necessary infrastructure already exists to support an Eastside-only starter line. The South Bellevue station, with 1,500 parking stalls and ample secure parking for bikes, is designed to be a bus-rail transfer point. The South Bellevue Station could be a place where people would transfer from light rail to Sound Transit’s bus service to access downtown Seattle, Issaquah and beyond. Sound Transit has already completed a dedicated operations and maintenance facility in Bellevue and there are places already built for trains to turn around — this solution is technically feasible. Not only can it work, it would be beneficial to the infrastructure we’ve already built because fully built stations would be open and operational, rather than sitting empty vulnerable to graffiti and other misuse.
To be clear, these latest delays highlight the continued need for oversight and for finding ways to build light rail faster and cheaper. The Sound Transit Board has hired a group of national experts to help accelerate the build out of light rail across our region, and we’re simultaneously working to improve oversight and implement best practices. I look forward to partnering with our incoming CEO Julie Timm, who will lend a fresh pair of eyes to the challenges facing Sound Transit’s capital program and its day-to-day operations.
This isn’t an either or: Let’s open Eastside light rail while we tackle our latest construction challenges, learn from our mistakes, and listen to outside experts and the community so we can deliver on the regional vision of light rail that voters have endorsed time and time again. That’s why I’m urging Sound Transit to open a Bellevue to Redmond light rail starter line early, while we wait for the other delayed portions along I-90 to be completed. If we can find a way to connect to the Mercer Island station, even better.
Next time you travel in Bellevue on 112th Street Southeast near Main Street, you can see that “2023” prominently stamped in concrete as a marker of the Downtown Bellevue Tunnel’s projected opening. Let’s make that date real and open East Link as soon as we can to serve the residents of the Eastside with world-class transit service.