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Sound Transit light rail train, photo by VeloBus Driver.

Sound Transit light rail train, photo by VeloBus Driver.


A Bumpy Ride For Light Rail In Bellevue

Amy Radil

A light rail showdown seems to be brewing between Sound Transit and the Bellevue City Council. The council is completely split over the route light rail should take through its city, and the impasse is delaying construction. Council members say the issue has created an atmosphere of bitterness and threatened Bellevue's reputation as a "can do" city.


Before the 2009 election, Sound Transit officials and a majority of Bellevue City Council members were in agreement about the route for light rail to come into the city from I–90. After the election, though, the majority changed, igniting what one observer called a blood feud on the council. Four members opposed Sound Transit's preferred route. Now those members have proposed their own new light rail route, but it's not on Sound Transit's agenda.

Sound Transit's preferred route is controversial for the harm it could do to neighborhoods and traffic near Bellevue Way. The City Council's new route costs $140 million more to build and is seen as more environmentally risky for its path through Mercer Slough.

Three council members support Sound Transit's route. Grant Degginger is one of them, but he says after 12 years on the council, he won't be seeking reelection this fall.

Degginger: "It seemed like a good time for a sabbatical."

He says the council's hallmark used to be a talent for creative problem solving, but that's been lost recently. Degginger was mayor in 2008 when voters passed the Sound Transit 2 funding package. It funded the Eastlink light rail line across I–90 all the way to Overlake. He worked with Sound Transit to get the conversation going.

Degginger: "What we were trying to establish was a collaborative process. That doesn't mean you don't have differences you need to work out, but the way to do it is to stay at the table and keep negotiating, rather than negotiating via accusations and challenging people's motives."

Degginger and Council Member Claudia Balducci both had their motives challenged by fellow council members, but were cleared by an ethics investigator.

One investigation is still ongoing, involving the business dealings of council member and developer Kevin Wallace. Last fall Wallace was privately negotiating a business deal involving the BNSF rail corridor while publicly supporting a light rail route there. The deal became public because the company he was negotiating with filed for bankruptcy. The council has hired an investigator to determine whether Wallace violated state ethics laws. Wallace has said he supports the investigation and is cooperating with it.

Meanwhile the main concern for Bellevue residents is how the coming of light rail will change their city.

At a recent City Council open house, Bellevue resident Erin Powell said she wishes Sound Transit would take a closer look at the City Council's new route because it avoids the Winters House, a historic landmark, and makes use of the existing Burlington Northern rail corridor.

Powell: "I mean, it's already there. And it's been used, it could in the future be used and not screw up the neighborhood, not screw up Winters House, not screw up Bellevue Way. It seems like a really logical alternative."

On the other side, residents formed the group Move Bellevue Forward to support Sound Transit's route and funding for a downtown tunnel. The group's president, Sue Baugh, says the four City Council members supporting the new light rail route are trying to create confusion and delay. She points to the campaign contributions they've received from developer Kemper Freeman, who has fought light rail through the courts and ballot measures.

Baugh: "Our feeling is that essentially the majority of the City Council that has come on now is doing what we call, delay to kill. They essentially want to kill light rail, that's their goal."

Baugh's group says the dispute over this southern route has become a distraction from their key issue: funding a light rail tunnel through downtown. If they don't figure out that funding, she says, Sound Transit may choose a cheaper surface option, which many in Bellevue oppose.

Bellevue Mayor Don Davidson is one of the four City Council members who support the new light rail route. He rejects the idea that he's trying to kill light rail. Davidson says while he personally still favors bus rapid transit, he accepts the will of the voters in approving funding for light rail.

Davidson: "I'm not trying to delay to kill. I've agreed to 60 percent of the vote was, do light rail. I'm here to do that."

Sound Transit officials say the inability to agree on a route into Bellevue has delayed light rail construction by a year so far.

McCarthy: "I'm weary! I'm very weary."

At their most recent Sound Transit board meeting, Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy and other members vented their frustration over the delays. McCarthy said they've already agreed to look at partially funding the tunnel in downtown Bellevue. Paying for a more expensive route to the tunnel is not on the table for her.

McCarthy: "The citizens of Bellevue have expressed this desire to have a tunnel which requires more funding and we've been willing to work with them. But at some point in time we have got to hold Bellevue accountable that enough's enough, we're ready to move on."

Eastside businesses have also written a letter to the Bellevue City Council members urging them to avoid further delays.

Sound Transit officials say the moment to move on could come at the board's meeting in late July. That's when the board can choose the final route, subject to federal approval. If Sound Transit and Bellevue are still at odds, the issue could end up in court. But Mayor Davidson says the two groups are meeting frequently in hopes of finding a solution.

I'm Amy Radil, KUOW News.

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