Sound Transit chose a route for East Link Thursday afternoon that included a tunnel for downtown Bellevue, but it will depend on the transit agency and city reaching an agreement on how to split the tunnel's $276 million cost.
Sound Transit voted for the East Link alignment with the Bellevue downtown tunnel 15-2, with Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn and King County Council member Larry Phillips voting against. Seattle Council President Richard Conlin was absent.
McGinn and other board members expressed concern over how much Sound Transit would have to pay if the financing of the tunnel, even if Bellevue were able to come through with the proposed $160 million in tax breaks, property acquisitions and other actions that would help pay for the tunnel.
McGinn said that other future sections of the Sound Transit light rail system could be compromised if the Bellevue tunnel turns out to be more expensive than expected.
The vote was lauded by the Bellevue City Council in a prepared statement released Thursday night.
“The City of Bellevue and Sound Transit have made substantial progress in recent weeks in resolving key differences on the best route for East Link through Bellevue,” Mayor Don Davidson said in a prepared statement. “Taking time now to get this right will best serve both the region and Bellevue.”
Bellevue Councilwoman Claudia Balducci, who also sits on the Sound Transit board, said that the vote shows that the alignment is best for Bellevue and for Sound Transit riders, because it reaches Bellevue's employment and retail area and the trains will not be affected by Bellevue's heavy downtown traffic.
"This alignment is the right alignment for both Bellevue and the region," she said. "It gets to the place that serves the most people and it will have the fastest service."
However, she acknowledged the challenge in the next few months for both Sound Transit and Bellevue will be coming up with a plan to pay for the tunnel, which is an additional cost to the project. If the tunnel ran on the surface, East Link would cost $2.5 billion.
"Financing has been a challenge not just for this, but for all aspects of the program," Balducci said. "I don't think we're alone in having financing challenges."
The next move is for the city of Bellevue, which has until Aug. 10 to vote on a term sheet, that will lay the groundwork for a binding agreement between the city and Sound Transit for splitting the costs of the tunnel. The binding agreement will be due to the Sound Transit board by its October meeting.
Bellevue Councilwoman Jennifer Robertson before the vote asked Sound Transit to keep working with Bellevue in good faith because they have been coming closer on an agreement.
“Given the progress we’ve made in just the last few weeks, it is in the best interest of the region for Sound Transit to continue working with us,” Robertson said, “and not to foreclose reaching agreement on the tunnel and potential design changes to the B2M route that address the public’s issues and concerns.”
A draft of the term sheet that was considered by the Bellevue City Council on Monday, but was not signed, would have the city paying up to $160 million of the $276 million tunnel cost, through tax breaks, property acquisition and other actions. The figures are all in 2010 dollars, which could rise with inflation.
Balducci told the Sound Transit board that the Bellevue City Council needed more time to consider the term sheet and proposed the Aug. 10 deadline to give the city and Sound Transit time to work on it.
Sound Transit chief executive officer Joni Earl said that the tunnel will depend on Bellevue and the transit agency meeting the August and October deadlines on coming to an agreement.
If the financing talks don't result in an agreement, then Sound Transit can reconsider a surface route on 110th Avenue Southeast, she said.
The approved alignment also included the light rail route that connects Interstate 90 with downtown Bellevue via Bellevue Way Southeast and 112th Avenue Southeast, which had been the transit agency's longtime preference.
Sound Transit's preference for that route had put it at odds with the majority of Bellevue City Council members. Four out of seven supported a different light rail route, one that followed a BNSF rail road line that was further east and followed Interstate 405.
While the council remained split on the issue, including over a vote to spend $670,000 on a study on ways to make the alternative route less expensive and with more riders. However, when the final environmental impact statement was released, the Bellevue council's preferred option was ruled out.
However, the Bellevue council has been unanimous on a tunnel, which would go underneath Northeast 110th Avenue south of the Bellevue Transit Center. The trains will re-emerge on Northeast Sixth Street and then head on an elevated route to the neighborhood near the hospitals east of the freeway.
The council indicated earlier this month week that they were united on finding a way to pay for a tunnel and wanted to have a united front in discussions with Sound Transit in advocating for the best way to mitigate the impact of light rail to Bellevue, including the noise, environment and nuisance to the neighbors along Bellevue Way and 112th Avenue Southeast.
Sound Transit is expected to start construction of East Link in 2015 or 2016 and launch passenger service in 2022 or 2023, according to an agency press release.