Few interesting ideas have landed with a bigger thud than the "Vision Line" proposal by Bellevue City Councilmember and developer Kevin Wallace. A rookie politician and the son of leading Eastside realtor Bob Wallace, Wallace has laid out a new way to get Sound Transit light rail through downtown Bellevue and its neighborhoods south of downtown.
Seattle density-dogmatists pounced, declaring Wallace's Vision Line, as he calls it (grandly), in violation of basic principles of how to use transit to stimulate transit-oriented development and get more folks out of cars and into trains. In turn, the hostile, ad-hominem attacks show how emotional our local debates about transit remain, even after the issue was supposedly "settled" by the passage in 2008 of Sound Transit 2.
Turns out the Wallace plan is far from dumb, at least in my view. So allow me to present a more dispassionate account of this proposal, which has its strengths along with its weaknesses. Bear with me.
First, some context. We're talking here about what's called Eastlink, the $2.8 billion route of Sound Transit light rail after it crosses the I-90 bridge and then heads north to Bellevue and then onward northeast to Microsoft's campus and (almost) Redmond. Sound Transit's preferred plan is to run the line up some settled suburban streets like Bellevue Way and 112th Ave. SE, traversing leafy neighborhoods like Surrey Downs, skirting the Mercer Slough, and then cutting through the Bellevue central business district, either on surface streets or by a tunnel. Less disputed is the route heading east from downtown Bellevue, passing through the relatively underdeveloped corridor (with prime transit-development prospects) connecting Bellevue with Microsoft and western Redmond.
The Vision Line plan as originally proposed by Wallace, who ran on this issue in getting elected to the Bellevue Council last fall, would continue eastward along the I-90 corridor (which means crossing, near the freeway, some more wooded land of the Mercer Slough); join up with the abandoned right of way of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway; then diverge from the rail corridor to enter Bellevue on an elevated viaduct leading to a massive intermodal station alongside I-405 at NE 6th and 114th Ave. SE (where Coco's restaurant has long been a landmark), near the large I-405 cloverleaf as well as Bellevue City Hall and the Meydenbauer convention and performance center.
The Vision Line is responding to some obvious problems with the Sound Transit plan. First, the Vision Line doesn't go through the suburban enclaves lying west of the Slough, where the neighbors don't want the noise and disruption of Sound Transit's planned route, relatively few riders will be attracted, and lawyers are rubbing their hands in anticipation of long resistance in courts. Before Seattleites sneer at the suburbanites, just think how, say, Capitol Hill and Montlake would have reacted if Sound Transit had proposed running on the streets rather than the far more expensive tunnels it chose. Likewise, think about the proposed South Bellevue station at the Mercer Slough park-and-ride lot — hardly a good siting for transit-oriented development with the protected wetland all along the eastern side of this route and station.
A second advantage of the Wallace route occurs when it comes to downtown Bellevue. It may save as much as $500 million by not building a tunnel in downtown Bellevue — money Sound Transit doesn't have and Bellevue doesn't want to spend — and that savings might extend the line eastward toward Redmond. (As for a surface route, the Bellevue Council seems unlikely to agree to that, saying it would worsen congestion on the already busy superblocks of the downtown.) So, while the Vision Line may have fewer riders in Bellevue, by not having a station right in the center of its downtown (if there is a center), it might gain more than the preferred Sound Transit route by having a better station to the south in Wilburton (with 1 million square feet of commercial space) and where two major bike trails converge. And by getting closer to Redmond. So far, however, Sound Transit studies give the Vision Plan poor marks for attracting riders.
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