Archive for April 15th, 2010

From Seattle – A light-rail tunnel is best solution for Bellevue and region – NOT!

April 15, 2010

I see that the city of Bellevue, located directly East of Seattle across Lake Washington, wants to put the proposed LRT in a tunnel under the city. This extremely expensive bit of transit planning reflects the power of the auto lobby to push public transit underground, thus greatly increasing costs, while at the same time deterring ridership. This blinkered attitude reflects that in North America, the car is king and light rail or LRT is a metro/subway by another name.

What transit planners in Seattle forgets is that LRT operating on a “reserved rights-of-ways” (RRoW) doesn’t have the conflicts with auto traffic as many would have them believe. The very nature of a RRoW prevents interaction with auto traffic except at light controlled intersections. It is the RRoW that has made light metro, such as VAL and SkyTrain/ART obsolete.

A LRT service will be just as predictable and fast as a subway and contrary to the subway/metro crowd, surface LRT is actually safer than subway operation. The claim that there are many accidents on a surface LRT ignores the fact that over twice as many people are killed on SkyTrain (with associated 2 to 3 hour train stoppage) than LRT operations about the same size, such as Calgary!

What is ignored is that the vast majority of tram/light rail accidents with autos are caused by auto drivers ignoring light and or street signals. The fact is a tram/LRT – car intersection is about ten times safer than a car – car intersection. Also ignored is the high cost of tunnel/subway maintenance and protection, where a recent Seattle transit tunnel incident highlighted the problem of teen gangs taking over the tunnel, fighting, etc., requiring expensive security to be maintained during hours of operation!

Rail for the Valley would think it prudent that transit planners in the Seattle region start looking at cheaper ‘rail’ alternatives such as disused (East Side Line?) or seldom used freight lines with TramTrain service, rather than squander hundreds of millions of dollars on needless, expensive, and prestigious subway construction that will ensure limited or no future expansion.

A light-rail tunnel is best solution for Bellevue and region

The city of Bellevue and Sound Transit must keep pressing forward on an agreement to bring light rail into Bellevue, write guest writers Ron Rauch and Sue Baugh. A short tunnel bringing passengers near the transit center is a costlier but better long-term option for the city and the region.

By Ron Rauch and Sue Baugh

Special to The Times

LIGHT rail to the Eastside must serve the heart of downtown Bellevue near the transit center, where the most riders will be. On that much, Bellevue and Sound Transit agree.

It’s down to how we get there: on the surface — or in a tunnel? Thursday, the Sound Transit Capital Committee will make its recommendation to its board.

Bellevue leaders have coalesced behind a shorter tunnel, known as C9T, under our busy downtown streets. Sound Transit studies say that will serve more riders than a surface route and avoid downtown traffic. But the tunnel is about $300 million beyond the project’s budget, and the agency is asking Bellevue to share in the cost.

The city is currently offering up to $150 million, and can commit that without raising taxes. Sound Transit’s choice is to meet Bellevue’s good-faith efforts on the tunnel or choose a problematic surface route for downtown.

The tunnel is worth it.

Predictable and fast service will draw more riders to the system. The less light rail competes with cars, buses, bikes and pedestrians in limited right of way, the more attractive it becomes.

Our region’s land-use plans put downtown Bellevue at the epicenter of growth on the Eastside. Downtown 2030 targets call for jobs to double to 79,000 and residents to triple to 19,000.

Downtown Bellevue, on less than 2 percent of the city’s land area, can absorb the growth with the right blend of transportation investments. Even then, the traffic forecasts look nasty. We know that half of all commuters in 2020 must come either by bus or by something other than driving alone, or the network will become dysfunctional.

Built to serve this growth, light rail will be a long-term asset for Bellevue and the region. We need to connect the dots, to put stations in the major employment and population centers. That means a link to centers like Seattle and Bellevue with the best possible routing.

Voters backed a light-rail system that would offer easier connections to more places, not one stuck in traffic, causing delays and creating safety risks. A surface route through downtown would cross three major arterials, including Northeast Fourth Street with some 20,000 vehicles per day.

Light-rail systems in other cities traverse downtown streets and serve thousands of riders daily. Each system also bears a record of accidents, mostly minor and some fatal, with other forms of travel. News archives from those cities tell those stories.

However, the crash rate in Bellevue’s growing downtown would be zero with a tunnel.

All told, light rail is a safe mode of travel. But we can’t ignore the odds: Mixing trains with traffic will cause accidents and system delay. Sound Transit and Bellevue have a chance now to avoid both. Just because an at-grade system can work doesn’t mean it’s the best solution.

While there’s no easy way to thread light rail through downtown, the shorter tunnel option is closest to getting it right for the future of our city and region.

Fortunately, Sound Transit rebounded from early missteps on Central Link to win voter confidence for a major expansion. The agency’s leadership today is focused on the best outcome for East Link and the region.

So what is it worth to Sound Transit and Bellevue to provide the safest, most effective light-rail service? The stakes are high as we plan for 2030 and well beyond.

Sound Transit and the city must keep their negotiation alive and reach a deal. If we’re truly buying light rail for our future — with riders, access and our economy in mind — the tunnel is the way to go.

Ron Rauch, left, is a shareholder with Clark Nuber, P.S., and current chair for the Bellevue Downtown Association Board of Directors. Sue Baugh is a director with Commerce Real Estate Solutions/Cushman & Wakefield Inc. and chair of the BDA’s Light Rail Committee