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Sound Transit ready to 'pull the trigger' on East Link

Sound Transit has a message for the Bellevue City Council: It's time to stop talking about East Link; it's time to get it done.

Several members of the Sound Transit board showed frustration at the majority of the Bellevue council for continuing to push a light-rail alignment that they believe is too expensive, when even the cheaper routes face a budget shortfall.

The ongoing debate and lag in the documentation means the project may not be completed until a year or two after the original 2021 opening date.

At the monthly board meeting Thursday, representatives from a variety of municipalities that make up the Sound Transit board got the latest figures for East Link and a rudimentary comparison between Sound Transit's preferred alignment, B2M - traveling along Bellevue Way and 112th Avenue, and Bellevue's B7-revised - moving the line to the east side of the Mercer Slough parallel to Interstate 405.

The frustration on the part of Sound Transit may have been intensified by the unfortunate events surrounding a different Link alignment. In South King County, revenue is falling far short of projections, and the line may need to be shortened. Federal Way representatives turned out to urge Sound Transit to do anything it could to bring light-rail further south.

"We have the mayor of Federal Way sitting before us today, asking us, pleading with us to do anything we can to build light-rail in any possible way we can into this community," said King County Council Member Julia Patterson. "Yet the city of Bellevue is asking for us to pay for the most expensive possible alignment. I just find that to be troubling."

Bellevue's independent study of the B7 route, released last week, showed that a new park-and-ride structure would increase ridership. But the new route cost $150 million more than Sound Transit's in a time where lower tax revenue is leading to continued drops in the budget for Link projects.

"The main take away is that it's still not affordable," said Claudia Balducci, Sound Transit board member and one of three Bellevue council members favoring the B2M route. "It's not an affordable alternative and has some serious impacts involved with it."

The B7-revised route would have fewer residential impacts, according to project documents. But the risks associated with crossing the Mercer Slough, and the impacts to the Red Lion and Sheraton hotels drove the costs up.

The cheapest of the routes, a version of B2M that includes running the train at-grade through downtown, is $33 million short. With the downtown tunnel, the shortfall rises to a total of $309 million. The B7-revised route with a tunnel faces a shortfall of $450 million.

On the plus side, the board showed optimism on the possibility of getting the tunnel done. Balducci said Bellevue has set aside approximately $25 million in the budget, which can be bonded, and will use a combination of right-of-way considerations, and tax and fee breaks to make up for its approximately $150 million contribution. The Bellevue council unanimously favors a tunnel through downtown Bellevue.

The true test of the relationship between the two bodies will come to the forefront when real negotiations can begin after Sound Transit releases the Final Environmental Impact Statement. This document will solidify the numbers, and give Sound Transit the ability to make its final decision. Project Manager Don Billen said the document may be ready by the July meeting, but that would be a "push."

What was clear, however, was the board's desire to get the project going. The board will continue to work with Bellevue, but everyone involved wants to see the project realized.

"This board is reaching the point where they have to pull the trigger and hit the target," said Chair Aaron Reardon, the Snohomish County Executive. "And we'd like to have Bellevue on board with us to help identify that target. But in the event they are not, this board will choose that target."

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