A light rail line reserved for the Eastside? Here’s why it could happen

Not too long ago, Sound Transit’s groundbreaking year for a new Bellevue-Seattle rail route was set in stone: 2023.

This number, which appears on the portals of the tunnels above two Bellevue stations, now appears as a tease to travelers and taxpayers. Project managers have learned than approximately 5,400 concrete track sleepers in the old Interstate 90, the expressways were too fragile or misaligned to withstand decades of pounding by the 300 ton trains. By the time they are rebuilt, followed by the installation of signals and drives, Link service across Lake Washington cannot begin until at least the second half of 2024.

This late caused Sound Transit officials to ask: Can we move people in the meantime, opening a dedicated Eastside start line? Trains could run from South Bellevue near I-90, through downtown Bellevue, to the Microsoft campus near Highway 520.

“I see the stations, the empty parking spaces, the catenary wires that power the trains, and I think we should surely use them,” said Sound Transit board member Claudia Balducci last week. Nice view.

She launched the effort three months ago, in a Seattle Times editorial. “Due to continued population growth, coupled with an influx of new businesses and an affordable housing crisis, we cannot afford to wait another year or more without new mobility solutions on the Eastside,” said writes Balducci.

“I got more support for this idea than anything I’ve ever proposed,” says Balducci, a member of the Metropolitan King County Council who has held elected office since 2004. Voters approved higher sales taxes in 2008 to build the $3.7 billion East Link. and other regional extensions.

The new CEO of Sound Transit, Julie Tim, said staff were gathering facts on how to do it occur. Timm will provide updates from mid-November, so that the board can decide in January or February. “I want to make sure we do it with the idea of ​​starting with ‘yes'” until proven otherwise, she said in an interview.

Eventually, the full corridor, called Line 2, will run from downtown Redmond to Bellevue and Mercer Island, via I-90 in the International District/Chinatown station, adding an average of 49,000 daily passengers expected by 2030. Additionally, Line 2 trains will continue north sharing tracks with Line 1 to Northgate and Lynnwood.

The mayors of Redmond, Bellevue and Kirkland, public policy officials from Amazon, Google, Meta and Microsoft, and 11 other Eastside leaders co-signed a letter of approval for the starting line.

“Continued delay has other costs,” they wrote. “Current transit riders between Bellevue and Redmond endure a 40-minute commute that, with the opening of an Eastside line, would otherwise turn into a 17-minute commute, saving thousands of hours of travel time. “

Timm praised the starting line idea at a Bellevue Downtown Association forum breakfast on October 25, while warning that the agency would need 12 to 15 months to meet protocols. federal security, The town planner reported.

That figure is based on early discussions with the Federal Transit Administration, which must approve a partial segment, Timm says.

FTA would not yet comment on a partial line, other than to say it is “aware of the ongoing delays to the project and is committed to assisting Sound Transit in completing the East Link Extension Project in compliance with all laws and regulations. applicable”. A generation ago, the federal government approved a so-called minimum operating segment from Westlake Station to Tukwila, when Sound Transit could not afford to reach the University District and Angle Lake in the 2000s .

Change of direction

Most of the pieces are in place to run an eight-station Eastside service.

The stations and the track are over 98% complete, say the progress reports. Electrically powered train trials are scheduled for this week, across the Spring District of northeast Bellevue. Railcars can use the new maintenance base Bellevue, without needing to cross the lake at night to the base in Sodo.

A giant Incentive car park with 1,500 spaces and bus bays are ready at South Bellevue Station, the interim terminus.

The Redmond tech station, next to the Microsoft campus, is designed for fast turnarounds where trains can depart from either side of the central platform, with the help of a nearby crossover switch, like the 2021 Northgate Station in Seattle. At the southern end, trains would use the switch next to the East Main Station, one mile north of Bellevue South Station, which could cause brief delays.

But first, managers must answer strategic questions.

What are the labor costs, logistics and hurdles to keeping service live on land while contractors finish work on I-90 and train operators practice doing operate the world first transit trains on a pontoon bridge? Would these tasks delay other segments or regional projects?

Timm also said the agency and contractor Kiewit-Hoffman are developing a strategy to accelerate the I-90 segment. If they succeed, it reduces the useful life of an Eastside line.

Balducci said: “My hunch is that if the delay is six months or less, I don’t know if it’s working. If it’s more than two years, we should definitely do it. Between? We would have a discussion.

Board chairman Kent Keel said he was eager to hear more. He likes an Eastside starting segment, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of “the endgame, which is the full line going either way.”

Even if a starting line gets the green light, Sound Transit could still end up changing those etched tunnel portals to read 2024.

Jose P. Rogers