Seattle Commercial Real Estate News of the Day

Monday, August 1, 2011

Seattle Times Daily Journal of Commerce Headline
Developers struggle to get ground-floor retail leases Light rail tunnel may hinge on Bellevue’s contribution
Manufacturing growth hits lowest level in 2 years Even though Sound Transit has picked the route for the nearly $2.8 billion East Link light rail extension from Seattle to Redmond, some key questions remain.

Chief among them is how much the city of Bellevue is willing to contribute for a downtown tunnel. Other financing issues remain as the overall project is $100 million to $200 million short.

Last week, Sound Transit board members approved a route that includes the approximately $300 million tunnel Bellevue wants to reduce traffic congestion, but the agency now wants the city to share the risk. Going into the board meeting, Bellevue agreed to pay $160 million for the tunnel. Board members want Bellevue officials to pay more should the cost of the tunnel increase.

Will Bellevue make that commitment? “It’s hard to say,” said Bellevue Councilmember Jennifer Robertson. The city’s $160 million is “really a robust commitment.” She notes the $160 million is more than half of the city’s total 7-year capital budget of $299 million.

Time is tight for Sound Transit and the city. The two sides will try to finish putting a framework together by Aug. 10 and finalize a binding agreement by Oct. 25. If this process is delayed, the project will be further behind schedule. When voters approved the project in 2008, the approximately 18-mile East Link was to reach Bellevue by 2020. Light rail service now is scheduled to start in 2022 or 2023.

Then there’s the money. Even with Bellevue’s $160 million, the project is up to $200 million short. Collection of Sound Transit’s main source of money — sales tax revenue — continues to lag behind due to the weak economy. Another revenue source is federal grant funding, and it’s looking more precarious as lawmakers talk about making deep cuts. These are “substantial risks,” said Sound Transit Chief Financial Officer Brian McCartan, though he thinks there’s “a viable path forward” for East Link through project savings.

Two agency board members, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn and King County Councilmember Larry Phillips, expressed support for extending light rail to the Eastside but voted against the alignment resolution due, in large part, to funding uncertainty. They wanted to slow down the decision until getting up an update on Sound Transit finances. Sound Transit board members will get that in September.

More cost information will be available as the project is designed. Currently, design is 30 percent complete. CH2M Hill is doing the early design work. Ric Ilgenfritz, Sound Transit policy and planning director, said the agency will be able to change the scope of the project as design moves forward.

Other board members said that after five years, it was time to select an alignment. Lakewood City Councilmember Claudia Thomas said agency staff can’t provide cost information to board members without knowing the route. King County Executive Dow Constantine said delaying the vote could add to the cost of the project and result in legal action. He said it’s long past time to build light rail to the Eastside.

Business leaders urged the board to not delay a decision. A Microsoft representative said East Link is essential to the company’s continued growth here. The company employs 40,000 people in the region, and 7,000 of those commute across Lake Washington every weekday.

Sound Transit and Bellevue officials have gone from a standoff to cooperation in recent weeks. Sound Transit picked the South Bellevue route that the agency prefers but that most Bellevue City Council members opposed due to it going through residential neighborhoods and along the edge of Mercer Slough. Bellevue officials also expressed concern about traffic impacts in South Bellevue. The council majority favored routing light rail along Interstate 405, though the cost of that alignment proved too high.

In South Bellevue, Sound Transit has agreed to evaluate design changes on 112th Street to address noise and traffic impacts and work with the city project to add a southbound car-pool lane to Bellevue Way to mitigate construction impacts.

The route

East Link will start in Seattle’s International District/Chinatown transit tunnel station and enter Interstate 90 via the existing high-occupancy vehicle ramp to Rainier Avenue, where there will be a station. Trains will travel in the center lanes of I-90 across Lake Washington to Mercer Island, where there will be a station between 77th and 80th avenues southeast.

The route continues to Bellevue on I-90 and heads north at Bellevue Way. Trains will run on the east side of Bellevue Way on an elevated track to the South Bellevue Park-and-Ride, where a 1,400-stall parking garage will be built along with bus-transfer facilities. The route will continue north at grade and in retained cuts along Bellevue Way and 112th Avenue to downtown Bellevue. The route crosses to the west side of 112th with an East Main Street station. At Main, trains will enter a tunnel under 110th Avenue Northeast and travel to a subway stop at the Bellevue Transit Center under Northeast Fourth Street.

The route turns east on Northeast Sixth, going to an elevated structure over 112th Avenue Northeast, Interstate 405 and 116th Avenue Northeast. The route turns north into the former BNSF Railway corridor and continues to an elevated station near Overlake Hospital, where the line turns east into the Bel-Red corridor where trains will run at grade and on elevated tracks.

A retained cut station is planned at 120th Avenue Northeast, where Seattle developer Wright Runstad & Co. plans a large mixed-use development called the Spring District. The route continues to a 130th Avenue Northeast station, where a new 300-stall park-and-ride is planned.

The alignment continues in the median of Northeast 16th Street and 136th Place Northeast and across Northeast 20th Street, and transitions to an elevated structure on the south side of state Route 520 into Redmond. There will be an Overlake Village Station at 152nd Avenue Northeast and the route continues along 520 to the Overlake Transit Center Station, which will be rebuilt to accommodate light rail. This will be the temporary terminus.

Later, Sound Transit plans to extend the route along 520 to downtown Redmond with a station at the intersection of highways 520 and 202. The station calls for a 1,400-stall parking garage and bus facilities. The route heads west under 520 and 202 on the old BNSF corridor to a station in downtown Redmond.

The route and stations selected by the Board will be reviewed by the Federal Transit Administration. After Sound Transit receives what’s known as a Record of Decision from the FTA, the project will move into final design. Construction is scheduled to start in 2015 or 2016.

Sound Transit forecasts that by 2030, up to 50,000 people will ride East Link each weekday. The trip between Seattle and downtown Bellevue is projected to take less than 20 minutes. The afternoon peak period trip can now take 45 minutes. Sound Transit officials also say that as the region’s population continues growing in the coming decades, East Link can increase the length and frequency of trains to carry 9,000 to 12,000 people per hour in each direction. This would more than double the person-carrying capacity of I-90 and is roughly equivalent to seven to 10 freeway lanes of vehicle traffic.

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About CRE Northwest

Specialist in office & investment real estate in Seattle & the Eastside
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