About this blog

My name is Bill Hirt and I'm a candidate to be a Representative from the 48th district in the Washington State legislature. My candidacy stems from concern the legislature is not properly overseeing the WSDOT and Sound Transit East Link light rail program. I believe East Link will be a disaster for the entire eastside. ST will spend 5-6 billion on a transportation project that will increase, not decrease cross-lake congestion, violates federal environmental laws, devastates a beautiful part of residential Bellevue, creates havoc in Bellevue's central business district, and does absolutely nothing to alleviate congestion on 1-90 and 405. The only winners with East Link are the Associated Builders and Contractors of Western Washington and their labor unions.

This blog is an attempt to get more public awareness of these concerns. Many of the articles are from 3 years of failed efforts to persuade the Bellevue City Council, King County Council, east side legislators, media, and other organizations to stop this debacle. I have no illusions about being elected. My hope is voters from throughout the east side will read of my candidacy and visit this Web site. If they don't find them persuasive I know at least I tried.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

New "Light Rail Hall of Shame" Inductees--Bellevue City Council

The Bellevue City Council is apparently well on the way to approving the 10 permits Sound Transit needs for East Link light rail.  Over the last five years they have ignored my appearances before the council and many emails attempting to dissuade them from doing so.  

If approved, East Link will change cross-lake commuting forever in 2016 when ST confiscates the I-90 center roadway to install light rail.  A 2004 FHWA study concluded the outer roadways wouldn’t have sufficient capacity, even with the added 4th lanes.  When light rail does begin operation (2023?) those currently riding buses will be forced to transfer to light rail trains at the South Bellevue or Mercer Island light rail stations. 

The fact that East Link will never have the needed capacity for bus riders and the lack of outer roadway capacity for vehicles means I-90 will inevitably be frequently gridlocked.  Those living along the route into Bellevue will have their lives devastated by light rail construction and the noise from subsequent operation.  Bel-Red will be forced to endure trains trundling through the area for 20 hours a day.

This East Link debacle is the likely result of three BCC blunders.  The first was their failure to recognize Bellevue was under no legal obligation to allow light rail through our city.  State regulation RCW 36.70A.200 stipulates that the permitting process cannot be used to prevent the siting of essential public facilities such as high capacity transportation systems. RCW 81.104.015, defines “high capacity transportation systems” (HCT). They include “rail fixed guideway systems” that are hereby defined as a “light, heavy, or rapid rail system.” However, it also allows  "high occupancy vehicle lanes".  

Thus, there was nothing in any regulation that prevented the BCC from selecting bus rapid transit (BRT) as its preferred HCT system.  The council could have commissioned their own independent study which would have shown two-way BRT on the bridge center roadway was far superior to light rail.  BRT had ten times light rail capacity that could reduce eastside congestion by providing every eastside P&R lot with express bus routes into Seattle.  The fact BRT could be in service within two years for a fraction of light rail cost made it even more attractive.   

Instead, the council chose to commission studies of alternate light rail routes into Bellevue, the equivalent of trying to determine which side of the Titanic was safer.  In the end they accepted the preferred ST route as well as agreed to pay ~$200 million for a tunnel under central business district. 

They facilitated that blunder by rewriting the land use code requirements.   Their Alternate Light Rail Code (ALRC) revision didn’t include the original staff requirement to:  

Develop a light rail system in collaboration with the regional transit provider that is not contrary to the best interest of the citizens and property owners of the City of Bellevue and advances the City’s long-term transportation and land use objectives, minimizes environmental and neighborhood impacts, and balances regional system performance.

The council presumably recognized it would be very "difficult" to argue the current East Link route into Bellevue "minimized environmental and neighborhood impacts" or was "not contrary to the best interests to the citizens and property owners of the City of Bellevue".  The only way for light rail to meet those requirements was a tunnel into Bellevue, something ST refused to even consider.  (Or the BRT option ST also ignored)

The ALRC did include the following requirement:

             The regional transit authority has the written consent of the affected property owner to apply for the permit(s); or) from the owner of the property affected by the RLRT Facility or System

Even these requirements were “questionable” depending on who decides what it takes to qualify as an “affected property owner”.

The second council blunder was their failure to recognize the magnitude of the light rail noise problem.  Noise and vibration from Central Link train operation has necessitated ST incorporate sound proofing in homes more than 400 feet away from the tracks.  Their failure to appreciate the noise issue is clear from their apparent willingness to approve the ST Shoreline Substantial Development Permit Application. 

The ST application goes into great detail about the properties along the west side of the route needing mitigation.  However, even these attempts to reduce the noise won’t avoid disrupting the lives of many residents, both inside and outside their homes.  The application also details the number of trees that will be affected by the light rail tracks and the fractions of acres of Mercer Slough Park needed for the light rail station.  However it makes no attempt to mitigate the noise impact from the elevated light rail train operation on the park.  

Federal environmental law protects parks, recreation areas, waterfowl and wildlife refuges from encroachment unless there is no feasible or prudent alternative or the impact is de minimis.  No one can reasonably argue that a light rail system that requires homes more than 400 ft from Central Link light rail to be “sound proofed” in order to be “livable” would qualify as de minimis.
It’s not clear whether the council is unaware of this problem or doesn’t care.  In any case, permit approval will eventually lead to the quiet solitude of Mercer Slough Park being disrupted by light rail trains trundling past every 4-6 minutes for 20 hours a day.

The council’s lack of concern about light rail noise is also evident in their third blunder, a willingness to go along with ST light rail plans for the Bel Red development.  Again, ST makes no attempt to mitigate the noise even though much of the route is on elevated tracks that will surely exacerbate the problem.   Instead the council recently urged ST to “consider” locating the 23-acre light rail maintenance yard outside the Bel-Red area.   They’re apparently unaware of their ability to require ST relocate the site as a condition for approving permits.

The council could have avoided the Bel-Red noise and maintenance yard problem by opting for a far less expensive and more esthetically appealing “South Lake Union” type streetcar system.  It could either loop through the area or run on parallel tracks with connections to the Bellevue T/C.  (BRT routes across 520 to a University light rail station T/C would be far better for meeting "Microsoft" transit needs.)

The tracks would be at street level since they would not need to cross any major streets.   The streetcars would be less intrusive and more accessible with more stops than East Link’s two light rail stations. Frequency would be set by local demand rather than by some futile attempt to meet cross-lake transit demands.   Bel Red streetcars would end the debacle of East Link elevated light rail trains trundling through for 20 hours a day.  Hardly a “magnet” for development!

In conclusion, the council’s blunders have already cost the area dearly.  Any competent analysis of cross-lake transit options would have ended light rail five years ago.   ST could have added 4th lanes on the outer roadways reducing I-90 congestion in both directions.  BRT lanes on the center roadway would have alleviated congestion by attracting additional riders to express bus routes from P&R lots near their home.   Instead, the council has acquiesced to ST delaying adding the 4th lane until 2016 ending any “opportunity” to demonstrate outer roadway capacity prior to closing center roadway.

Even these blunders pale in comparison with the debacle awaiting the area if the council approves the ST permits.   It's only fitting  those responsible for doing so be singled out by inducting them into the Light Rail Hall of Shame.  They are:

Claudia Balducci, Mayor
Kevin Wallace, Deputy Mayor
John Chelminiak
Conrad Lee
Jennifer Robertson
Lynne Robinson
John Stokes

Mayor Balducci and Deputy Mayor Wallace are especially culpable.  Balducci, for her position as a Sound Transit Board member responsible for “directing” Sound Transit policies.  Wallace, for his leadership role in writing the ALRC that made East Link permitable.   Time will tell whether Lynn Robinson, the newest member will effectively oppose East Link.   The goal of course is to "shame" the council majority into disallowing the permits.  Failing that at least those inducted into Hall, who could have prevented the debacle, can be "remembered".    

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