Light rail plans released, public input sought

Two possibilities for the future Mercer Island light rail station were released by Sound Transit earlier this month, and officials want to hear what Islanders prefer.

On Dec. 4, Sound Transit unveiled 18 different route proposals on the Eastside that include two different options for the Island’s station. The key difference is the entrance to the station, which will be located near the North Mercer Park and Ride in the center roadway of I-90 between 77th and 80th Avenues S.E. One option, which was requested by the city, is the construction of a pedestrian bridge over the highway that extends from a proposed, future Town Center Plaza at the intersection of 78th Avenue and Sunset Highway. Sound Transit officials said that this proposal would cost $6 million more than the original plan, and it would reduce the walking distance by 500 feet to the Town Center. It would also create a more open platform, said Don Billen, a project manager with Sound Transit.

The initial scenario also includes two points of entry, with one on 80th Avenue S.E. and another on 77th, complete with stairs, escalators and an elevator. Both plans include a platform raised as much as possible from the surrounding highway and would incorporate the station into the existing style and landscaping. At previous open houses held on the Island, Sound Transit officials said that they heard residents did not want to feel like the station was in the middle of a freeway and wanted it to blend in with the existing environment.

As for the transit routes that run in the center roadway to and from the Island, Billen said that both the 550 and 554 express routes across the lake would continue after light rail is added to the reversible lanes. Prior to adding light rail, new HOV lanes on the outer roadway westbound from Island Crest Way to Seattle and eastbound from Seattle across the East Channel bridge are required by an interlocal government agreement.

According to Jim Edwards of Sound Transit, the regional transportation agency is going to ask the state legislature to approve the final $12 million of funding needed for the completion of all three phases. The first phase was completed earlier this year. Edwards said Sound Transit is paying $137.6 million toward the total project, while the Department of Transportation will spend $51 million. It has $27 million available today and will need to raise another $24 million to finish the job.

On the Eastside, there are several proposed routes through Bellevue. Some would be elevated above the roadway, others would be tunnels and some would be integrated into traffic at the street level. Costs for elevated and surface tracks to the Overlake area are estimated at $2.3-$2.8 billion, while the calculations for tunneling are pricier at $2.9-$3.7 billion.

Among the five south Bellevue alternatives, one runs entirely along Bellevue Way S.E., three go from Bellevue Way to 112th Avenue S.E., and one travels along the BNSF rail corridor.

The downtown Bellevue segment presents a tangle of alternatives — three that run through tunnels, two on elevated structures and one at ground level.

The Overlake portion includes two options that travel through the Bel-Red neighborhood and another that operates almost entirely along SR-520. Those routes would be elevated or surface lines.

Among the issues that Sound Transit will consider when deciding among potential routes are effects on homes, businesses, parks, traffic and sensitive habitats.

Up to 106 homes and 137 business could be affected by the East Link line, none on Mercer Island, depending on which options the agency chooses.

Another consideration is the BNSF freight corridor, a 42-mile tract of land that the Port of Seattle plans to buy for $107 million.

The Cascadia Center for Regional Development is pressuring Sound Transit to use that property for a commuter-train line, similar to the one running between Tacoma and Everett.

“It could be done for millions of dollars in just a few years rather than waiting decades for light rail,” said Cascadia Center representative Tom Jones. “This puts rail on the Eastside immediately.”

Voters approved the East Link extension in November by passing Proposition 1, an $18 billion mass-transit plan that includes light-rail expansion and additional bus service.

Local transit agencies have already started paving the way for the line with an initiative to create new HOV lanes along I-90 and open up the interstate’s center roadway for light rail.

Sound Transit predicts that by 2030, between 43,500 and 48,000 passengers will ride every day. Sound Transit officials also said that with the addition of light rail on I-90, the corridor will be able to transport an increase of more than 3,000 persons (which would be the same amount as building a six-lane 520 bridge).

Sound Transit will be accepting public comment until Feb. 25, and there will be an open house on Mercer Island from 4 to 7 p.m. on Jan. 27 at the Community Center at Mercer View.

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