Sound Transit has claimed for years one of the benefits of the East Link light rail extension is it will enhance development of the Bel-Red area. Like many of Sound Transit claims I’m somewhat dubious. Achieving even a fraction of the needed I-90 cross-lake capacity requires they maintain their one 4-car train every 8 minutes in each direction for much of the day. Thus every 4 minutes a light rail train will travel through the neighborhood either coming or going during most of the day. Even during the off peak hours, the trains will be frequent “intruders” during the anticipated 20 hours of operation. The “intrusion” being the noise and vibration from four 74-ton “light rail” train cars.
Sound Transit was forced to spend millions protecting homes up to 300 feet away from Central Link tracks in Seattle. Those tracks were at street level and Central Link operation then consisted of two-car trains. East Link operation will normally consist of 4-car trains running both on street level tracks and on elevated tracks for part of the route. The longer trains and elevated tracks will surely exacerbate the light rail noise problem.
Bellevue’s concern has forced Sound Transit to allocate millions to shield properties along the route into the city. The shielding includes noise barriers some 12 or more feet tall to protect homes hundreds of feet and across a major roadway from East Link tracks. Yet the Sound Transit East Link video depiction of light rail in Bel-Red shows little if any attempt to attenuate the noise impact along that route. Whether they’ve managed to reduce light rail noise or it’s another East Link “surprise” for those in the area remains to be seen.
The noise issue is just one reason why streetcars would be a far better transit option for Bel Red. They would be far less intrusive having operated in the South Lake Union area for several years with few if any noise complaints despite minimal efforts to attenuate noise. The route would include connections between the Bellevue T/C and tracks circling through the area or on adjacent tracks between the hospital area and 148th. .
At street level, the streetcars would be far more accessible than the 120th and 130th Ave light rail stations with multiple stop locations or even "on- demand" stops. Construction costs would be far less with no need to spend millions on light rail stations and elevated tracks. The streetcar maintenance requirements would be minimal compared to the maintenance yard required for East Link and the disruption from overnight activities needed to support light rail train operation. The streetcar track construction schedule could coincide with Bel-Red development rather than East Link's. Streetcar operation would be set by local Bel-Red demand rather than I-90 Bridge demand.
Without East Link BRT routes across SR-520 from a T/C at the University light rail station would provide Seattleites with transit to the Microsoft campus and Overlake area. The return routes would provide Redmond and Kirkland commuters with SR-520 BRT access to UW and light rail into Seattle. (Sound Transit predicts the ~$1B spent extending East Link to Redmond will only add 7-9,000 riders.) The SR-520 BRT/University Link combination would have twice the capacity of East Link for cross-lake commuters in both directions. Even with the time required to transfer at the UW station the transit times will likely be less with the shorter routes and fewer stops.
The bottom line is Bel-Red, like the rest of the east side, would benefit if East Link was aborted. It’s way past time for Sound Transit to recognize that reality.