Light Rail over 520?

Sound Transit Preferred Alternative on the Eastside
Sound Transit Preferred Alternative on the Eastside

A couple of people have suggested quite publicly that we reconsider the decision to put light rail on the I-90 bridge. I sent this as an email reply to Dave Thomas, who publishes a reliably interesting newsletter ( in response to an article in the most recent edition (#198.)

520 doesn’t work as the initial light rail route across Lake Washington for a variety of reasons. Personally, I’d love to have a train running across 520 and have tried to negotiate to get this. I’ve been convinced it’s not the right thing to do first. The Eastside legislative delegation has negotiated that the new bridge will have the capacity for, and that the design will not preclude, light rail in the future when it makes sense. The short-term reasons to stay with the I-90 route:

  1. You would have to dig extensive (expensive) tunnels to get anywhere interesting. You can’t easily hook up with the train through the U-District – it’s too deep to get to from Lake Washington. Current train technology doesn’t climb hills as steep as it would take to get to I-5. You’d have to go under, and then under Lake Union.
  2. There isn’t enough capacity on the north-south train on the west side to take all the commuters from the Eastside into downtown Seattle even if you let them off at Husky Stadium and had them take the elevator down.
  3. The design has been done and agreed to for years. Re-opening it is a disaster. I would like a north-south route on the Eastside. Nevertheless, this region needs to learn how to make decisions and execute on them. We cannot keep re-negotiating deals.
  4. Bellevue is a critical job center, and growing much faster (in jobs) than most other parts of the Eastside. This is mostly by design, and it has to be the center of the train route so that we get the density of both housing and jobs we need around the stations.
  5. The environmental sensitivity is largely if you cross the Mercer Slough at I-90 to get to the BNSF route, which isn’t going to happen. The train will almost certainly run up Bellevue Way and over 112th and into downtown Bellevue. (People will argue with me over this, but the preferred route by both Sound Transit and the City of Bellevue is the Bellevue Way one.)

 I agree that it looks like a good idea on first glance.  Once you spend some time looking at it you start to understand why the decisions were made the way they were. If all you care about is vehicle capacity you might want to leave I-90 alone, and that’s (I believe) where the suggestion came from. A functional system runs over I-90 initially.

As a region we have made this decision, and many other decisions that hinge on it, over and over again for the last decade. We should just execute.

Author: Ross

I am the Director of the Department of Early Learning for Washington State. I formerly represented the 48th Legislative District in the State House of Representatives, chairing the Appropriations committee and spent many a year at Microsoft.