Bellevue's Vision Line transit proposal has got it all wrong

It's got so many bad, anti-transit, anti-urban, anti-environmental ideas as to make it seem like a plot to discredit Sound Transit coming to the Eastside.
Crosscut archive image.

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

It's got so many bad, anti-transit, anti-urban, anti-environmental ideas as to make it seem like a plot to discredit Sound Transit coming to the Eastside.

If someone were intent on preventing the Eastside from getting light rail, few proposals would be more entirely effective than the so-called Vision Line. It is a concept that is essentially — as triage health professionals might say — 'ꀜDead On Arrival.'ꀝ

Advanced by a group of people associated with Eastside business real estate, notably developer and property manager Kevin Wallace, now a Bellevue City Council member, the Vision Line vividly demonstrates why public transit requires a public agency to respect the needs of transit patrons. I would suspect that few of those advocating this solution depend upon transit to get to and from their workplace, community events, or daily shopping.

First, the mere idea of passing over a protected wetlands — with all the decades of regulations, investment, restoration of habitat, nurturing of plant and animal species, careful insertion of low-impact trails and public education and interpretation — devalues all that effort. Turn back the clock a few decades and those same people advocating this alternative would probably be suggesting filling in the slough — just as was actually happening in the 70s.

It doesn'ꀙt matter where the rail alignment would be, both the construction occurring over years and the permanent visual and ecological disruption would be nothing less than unconscionable in this era of enlightened environmental protection. That one proponent dismissed this whole area of progressive policy by saying that fish can swim around the columns could be amusing if it were not so completely ignorant of the complexities of habitat and food chains.

Pursuing this alternative would automatically trigger am extensive, exacting, and very time-consuming impact study — and invite literally scores of public interest groups to challenge its findings in courts for years. Don'ꀙt really want light rail in Bellevue? Easy. Propose that it cross a wetlands. This in itself, makes the Vision Line a non-starter.

Bad enough, but the next fatal flaw is the wacky idea of a moving sidewalk, needed to connect the proposed Vision Line Bellevue station alongside 405 with the current Transit Center in the middle of downtown Bellevue. History does indeed repeat itself because at least once every decade since the late 1800s, someone has proposed this 'ꀜnovel'ꀝ idea. Since we have had the technology to do this for over 100 years, why is it we haven'ꀙt seen it all over?

But they are in airports, you say. Indeed — inside a building, enclosed from weather conditions. Outside in the open air, the thousands of belts, gears, pins, bolts, treads, wires, connectors (all moving parts, mind you) are subject to corrosion, degradation, torque, settling, and dozens of other elements that quickly make it deteriorate. In fact, as recently as the late 1970s, the City of Tacoma installed moving walkways in a misguided effort to help people negotiate the inclined slopes of its downtown. Within less than 10 years, the cost of maintenance and replacement was so horrendous that they were torn out.

Public agencies simply can'ꀙt pay for such extravagances over time. These business leaders surely must know that true costs are as much about recurring and 'ꀜlife-cycle'ꀝ costs as about initial capital investment. If they do not, perhaps a remedial course in simple development economics is in order. Or maybe someone is really being slyly disingenuous.

Incidentally, when was the last time you were rushing to catch a plane and discovered the moving sidewalk was down for maintenance? Even airport authorities with their large budgets, can'ꀙt keep pace. But more seriously, the idea of a moving sidewalk is fundamentally anti-urban. The suburban mentality is all about the speed of travel between two points — such as someone driving a car to shop for a boat or a big screen TV. Walking in cities is an entirely different mind set; it's not about speed at all. It is about meandering and strolling among a richly layered array of choices available to people at normal walking speed — 3-4 miles per hour. Increasing velocity is simply a false objective.

The point of cities is to enjoy urban life, with spontaneous experiences and chance social interactions. That is precisely what downtown Bellevue is slowly evolving towards. It certainly has a long ways to go, but to install mechanical conveyance systems to 'ꀜenhance'ꀝ walking would be not unlike delivering a fine meal to your restaurant table via rubber conveyor belt. Have these people ever experienced actually walking in a real city?

The final flaw is a more technical one. (Leave aside the absurd notion of long, massive, elevated viaduct-like superstructure lining the entire east edge of downtown Bellevue.) That technical issue is this: A rail transit station depends upon a 'ꀜcatchment area'ꀝ of workers and residents on all sides. The proposed station location draws only from one side, the west. Normal walking distances between the station and destinations — irrespective of any moving sidewalk — would ignore residents and employees within the western parts of the downtown. This calls into question the very efficacy of rail transit serving downtown Bellevue. Perhaps we should just bypass the place and let Overlake become the next big urban center?

OK, so I can hear your objections. Hey, what about building a big lid over 405 and building a nice big park? (Anyone been following the troubles of Freeway Park recently?) Yes a lid might cause housing and other uses to be built on the east side of the freeway, replacing the past pattern of motels and car sales lots. But downtown Bellevue has ample capacity, for many decades, for both housing and employment — considering all the under-utilized parcels and low-rise building left over from the mid-twentieth century. No need to expand to the east.

But even if that were in the cards for the future, there is one huge practical problem: the distance. Two of the lidded parks we have in this area already 'ꀓ Freeway Park in downtown Seattle and Mercer Island'ꀙs big, park-topped lid, have spans of 200 feet at their widest points. In the stretch along 405, the distance is more than 100 feet greater than that. Until Boston'ꀙs Big Dig, the Mercer Island stretch of freeway was the most costly segment of highway construction in the history of the U.S. Are we really itching to get that title back?

Nope, the Vision Line, despite its name, is hardly visionary. It merely combines bunch of tired, old ideas with some terrible new ideas. Multiple wrong turns hardly make a right.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Mark Hinshaw

Mark Hinshaw

Mark Hinshaw, FAIA, is an architect and urban planner. He was an architecture critic for The Seattle Times and is the author of many articles and books, including Citistate Seattle (1999).