Why Bellevue’s Vision Line makes some sense

Drawing of the Bellevue station in the Vision Line plan, with tent-like structure covering the moving sidewalk to the center of downtown Bellevue Credit: The Vision Line

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.

Going back to the question of the southern portion and its routes. The Bellevue Council did take a look at a route that would get the rail line to the large Metro park-and-ride lot on the west side of the Slough, then traversing the Slough on a northeasterly diagonal in order to connect up with the BNSF line. That marsh-busting route, just withdrawn by the Bellevue Council, drew justifiable criticism for invading the Slough. It’s probably also moot, since it is unlikely to get Corps of Engineers approval, as there are clear alternatives to not endangering a wetland. Wallace prefers the southerly crossing, right where I-90 already has a forest of pillars in the Slough, but the other one gave his opponents still more ammunition.

Slough-crossing aside, the Vision Line route through south Bellevue does seem better. It uses an existing railroad, therefore causing fewer problems with the neighbors and not crowding out bikes and cars on existing roadways. However, the Mercer Slough neighborhood residents, east of the marsh, are happy to be rid of the railroad and not eager to have squealing train wheels back. And there are still battles ahead about whether to convert the old rail line to commuter rail or reserve it as a hiking and biking route. Still, in the lawsuits-per-mile calculation, the Vision Line is the likely one with fewer trips to court, and now appears to be the choice of the majority of the Bellevue Council.

When you get to downtown Bellevue, the Vision Line has a tougher case to make. One of the great attractions of the Sound Transit overall scheme is the way it links major “activity centers” — rich concentrations of office workers, residents, shoppers, tourists — in Seattle, SeaTac, Bellevue, Lynnwood, and (some day) Tacoma and Redmond. So skirting the heart of downtown Bellevue, as Wallace proposes, is a big problem, affecting the whole system.

But might downtown Bellevue prove impossible? Could be. The council is badly split, though pretty unified about opposing a surface route. Nor does there seem to be a majority for a cut-and-cover tunnel, even a shortened one, owing to cost and years of disruptive construction. Clearly the politically logical outcome would be for Bellevue and Sound Transit to split the costs of the half-tunnel, but the new council is conservative, stingy, and not all that transit-smitten. Accordingly, the Vision Line solution becomes a possible “fallback,” the term used by Bellevue Councilmember Claudia Balducci, who is the city’s representative on the Sound Transit board.

The Vision Line proposal for an elevated station on the east edge of Bellevue’s CBD has been strenuously attacked by the densifiers. Thou shalt not put transit alongside a freeway, goes one tenet, since you obviously can’t build transit-oriented development and housing on the freeway side. On the other hand, as with Northgate (where developer Bob Wallace has put up a lot of new buildings in anticipation of the coming of light rail), such a location has another advantage. Freeway proximity and lots of room for ramps help turn such stations into multi-modal nodes — convergences of Metro buses, bus rapid transit, bike trails, van pools, and park-and-ride commuters.

Kevin Wallace and his advocates (a small group) pull one interesting rabbit out of their hats at this point. They argue that the I-405 location of the main station could also be a place where the proposed Renton-to-Snohomish rail line (on the aforementioned abandoned BNSF line) could bend several blocks westward and have a station in the Vision Line Bellevue station. One reason their proposed station is elevated and humongous is that it is such a complicated multi-modal convergence — the new ground zero “Nexus Station” of all the major roads and transit on the Eastside. This starts to look like a serious gain. (On the other hand, the BNSF line will meet up with the Overlake Hospital station of Sound Transit, next stop east of Bellevue’s downtown.)

Now I’d like to make two paradoxical points. Conventional wisdom holds that you should locate transit stations where people are. Unconventional wisdom is that you put them where people can build stuff around them — in effect, where people are not (yet). Portland is the poster child for this approach, having put a light rail station in the middle of an outlying wheatfield in Hillsborough, Orenco Station, which soon attracted lots of development since the land was affordable and open.

The problem with transit-oriented-development (the holy of holies in the Rail Religion) in crowded places is that the land values are high and the opportunities for development are mostly taken already. Not an easy place, especially, for building moderate-cost new housing. (Think about downtown Seattle and its transit stations, for example: relatively little new development, and most of it very expensive condos or office buildings. The same would probably happen in downtown Bellevue.) Also, as Seattle has found in its Sound Transit stations and I have argued earlier, you can only get them sited in existing neighborhoods if you promise not to upzone, not to build parking lots, not to have bus connectors.

So, ironically, you might do better with the Vision Line’s east-edge location for that Bellevue station. One reason is all that relatively low-cost land across I-405, where Bellevue’s auto row is looking for other uses for those parking lots. Can you bridge over 405 to get there? (Tough question.) Might not that area orient to the transit station planned for the hospital zone to its north? (Yes, but two stations might be better than one in spurring new development.)

And this brings me to my second paradox: downtown urban development tends to leapfrog, not ooze. “Downtown Bellevue is growing eastward,” Wallace argues, and if so his station might be at the center of the city of the future, even if not the center of the present-day Bellevue CBD. Seattle is a good example of this kind of growth, where developers leap over the nearby ring in order to get to cheaper, more open land. That happened in the 1920s, when Seattle’s retail district jumped out of the Second and Columbia area to Fifth and Pine. It’s happening now with the jump from downtown to the Denny Triangle and South Lake Union.

The coming of light rail on the Eastside has likely spurred just this kind of thinking, especially along the Bellevue-Redmond corridor with its sprawling warehouses just aching for significant development, pivoting around the new transit stations. Here you have a prime example (Lynnwood will be another, and maybe Federal Way) of how transit can actually subvert previous investment and jump-start whole new urban complexes. Presumably Wallace, as a sharp developer and lawyer, knows his real estate prices and patterns. His station, as a nexus of all these roads and routes, reflects this coming of Greater Bellevue. “Vision” indeed!

In sum, not a dumb idea at all. Maybe even a powerful and alarming one for the Eastside establishment. True, it’s late in the day. True, developers like Kemper Freeman Jr., who favor it, have a lot of anti-transit statements to live down. True, that elevated monster station is about as deadly an urbanism buster as you could concoct — though at least the area in question is already a kind of dead zone and it’s possible that you could make all these links work underground, as at Seattle’s multi-modal Union Station. True, that elevated, moving walkway to reach the existing Transit Center is probably unworkable and poor urban design. But maybe a circulator system of small buses, as planned, could replace it, or the whole spine of NE 6th from Bellevue Square to Vision Junction could provide Bellevue with a grand, pedestrianized, Barcelona-style strolling boulevard?

That’s a lot of maybes. But credit Wallace, who looks like an emerging political force on the Eastside, with putting ideas like these on the table. He’s creating a much richer discussion of how transit can shape the emerging urban complex of the Eastside.

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