Why Don't Rich Eastside Developers Want Light Rail in Downtown Bellevue?
Inside the Plot to Reroute Sound Transit's Light Rail
Of the many proposed routes for the new light-rail line through Bellevue, one gaining traction is called the "Vision Line," and it is the preferred route of two Bellevue developers. Its most central stop in Bellevue is the better part of a mile from the center of downtown.
I decided to take that long walk to find out how practical the Vision Line would be for riders who would need to get from the potential light-rail stop to downtown Bellevue. Google Maps estimated that the full walk would take 11 minutes. I began the trek by crossing the parking lot underneath the I-405 on-ramp. There were no other pedestrians on those narrow, dimly lit sidewalks bordering wide roads of traffic. Crossing 112th Street Northeast was like playing Frogger, dodging cars even when I was walking with the signal. Speed walking, I made it to the transit center in four and a half minutes, but I wasn't even halfway to Bellevue Square. By the time I finished my trek, my jeans were soaked with rain.
Such a lengthy walk from station to destination would kneecap light-rail ridership. A report by the federal National Personal Transportation Study found that only 40 percent of Americans would walk 1,000 feet—the distance from the transit center to the proposed light-rail stop—to reach a transit stop. Only 10 percent would be willing to walk half a mile, which wouldn't even get them to the middle of downtown Bellevue from the Vision Line.
Ever since voters approved the Sound Transit extension in 2008, Bellevue has been split over its light-rail alignment. On one side of the debate: Transit advocates and regional planners want the line to run through the middle of downtown, which holds the second-highest density in the region after downtown Seattle. This seems obvious enough. The alignment would bring mass transit to the place it's needed most.
On the other side of the debate: A handful of well-connected developers, including development mogul Kemper Freeman Jr., want the light-rail line to skirt the center of downtown Bellevue, stopping by the freeway. The Vision Line's main Bellevue stop would then be roughly a quarter mile from the South Bellevue Transit Center and just over half a mile from Bellevue Square, at the core of downtown.
Freeman suggests that commuters like me could shorten the long walk by riding "a moving sidewalk," he says, or "something similar to what I call the 'Disney Train,' which is what goes through Disneyland."
"Clearly the train is in the wrong place if you're needing a moving walkway to get people into the city," says Shefali Ranganathan, director of education and outreach at Transportation Choices Coalition, which works for transportation reform in Washington.
But after the 2009 election, it looks like this impractical alignment could prevail. The Bellevue City Council, which makes the city's light-rail recommendations to Sound Transit, is now stacked four-to-three against sending a line through downtown. Suspiciously, all of those four council members have accepted large campaign contributions from Freeman, public disclosure records show. Kevin Wallace, one of those council members, is Freeman's ally in the push for the Vision Line.
But Freeman says he's not trying to hurt transit. The Vision Line, for all its apparent impracticality, has a couple of assets. It's supposedly less expensive (definitive numbers weren't expected until after The Stranger went to press), and for Microsoft commuters the trip to work could be few minutes shorter. Wallace says it would "be faster" because the route, along Burlington Northern rail tracks, better connects to Renton to the south and Snohomish to the north.
In other words, the train can go from A to Z, without hitting point B—downtown Bellevue.
Freeman is a notorious light-rail opponent. State election records show that his company Kemper Holdings spent over $100,000 fighting Sound Transit 2; he was listed as a petitioner on a lawsuit brought before the state supreme court to prevent light rail from being built on I-90; and in 2003, he spoke at the Preserving the American Dream conference, a conference billed to "help you effectively oppose rail transit boondoggles." Freeman gave over $3,500 altogether to Bellevue City Council members Wallace, Conrad Lee, Jennifer Robertson, and Don Davidson. Freeman just gave money to "the four best candidates," he says, and he's "proud of them on all kinds of issues." The Bellevue Reporter said in September 2009 that Freeman owns roughly 8 percent of downtown Bellevue. Kemper Holdings owns and operates Bellevue Square (which has complimentary parking) and Bellevue Place and Lincoln Square (both of which have parking garages that require "validation from Bellevue Place and Lincoln Square retail, restaurants, and entertainment," according to the company's website). The company also owns the Hyatt Regency Bellevue, where parking ranges from $6 for two to three hours to $16 overnight.
Ben Schiendelman, who has been covering light rail on the Eastside for the Seattle Transit Blog, believes Freeman "doesn't really have any financial gain from adding light rail. He already has very high-class clientele, they live nearby... He already has access from the people who want to shop there. He thinks he might drive them away if people with lower incomes started coming in on light rail. And as you increase density, you see a wider range of incomes, and I don't think he wants to see that."
But Bruce Nurse, vice president of Kemper Development, says, "It's very presumptuous of Mr. Schiendelman to speculate on Kemper Freeman's market philosophy. Kemper Freeman has always welcomed the region's residents and visitors to downtown Bellevue... regardless of age or income. The need for good personal mobility is one of the reasons that Kemper has been active in the transportation debate for several decades."
He adds, "All residents throughout the region deserve a transit system that will actually get people where they want to go. Light rail simply costs too much, produces too little, and is too disruptive to the local business community during the lengthy construction process." Nurse says that Freeman's parking garages "have nothing to do with" his opposition to light rail.
"Kemper is a known light-rail opponent," says Ranganathan, of Transportation Choices Coalition. "I just find it interesting that he funded council members who are now supporting an alignment that will keep the train from getting to downtown."
Freeman defends his contributions to anti-rail council members. "What I didn't do is have a meeting with someone and say, 'Here's a check and here's what I want,'" he says. "I've lived here all my life, and I know the city council by first name."
But Ranganathan shoots back, "He's been on record saying repeatedly that a train going through downtown Bellevue would be disruptive. But we see trains in multiple cities that run alongside cars, and they work just fine."
The Vision Line is also gaining opponents among elected officials. "My preference would be to get a lot closer to the transit center," said Claudia Balducci, a recent Sound Transit board appointee and member of the Bellevue City Council. "The reason you would do something like that is if you could absolutely not mitigate a line to the transit center." However, she points out, every alternative listed by Sound Transit is closer to downtown than the Vision Line.
"In any alignment for East Link light rail, the public will want to know how it connects jobs with housing, how many people will ride it, how construction will impact the environment, and what it will cost," says King County executive and Sound Transit board member Dow Constantine. "The Vision Line should be studied," he says. "But I have concerns about how it would meet these criteria."
Freeman, while careful to point out he's not opposed to mass transit, per se, insists mass transit can't replace car trips (despite a Sound Transit study showing that light rail could reduce vehicle miles traveled by up to 30 percent per year, and that people who live and work near light rail drive up to 40 percent less). Freeman says the best mass transit could ever do is carry 18 percent of all trips.
"Kemper likes to use that figure a lot," explained Ranganathan, who says Freeman is basing the figure on a 24-hour period, and not on when light rail is most needed: during peak hours.
Sound Transit has proposed several routes as alternatives to the Vision Line. Among them: a line that circles the transit center and a tunnel that would go under the traffic mess of downtown Bellevue. But the tunnel is far outside of Sound Transit's budget, and Bellevue can't afford the tunnel on its own. With the tunnel off the table, a couple of other routes that serve the transit center without looping have gained some attention—and both would better serve the center of downtown.
Sound Transit is currently looking into the cost, environmental impact, and ridership for the Vision Line. If the ridership projections are too low, for instance, Sound Transit can take the route off the table. Wallace said the results of a Vision Line study will be ready by the next Sound Transit Board meeting on January 28.
This story has been updated since it was originally published.