The true cost of a light rail

A couple of years ago, I distinctly remember flashy signs advertising a fancy new light rail system to connect Seattle and Bellevue, with the projected opening date being in 2015. The construction is behind schedule and I think finding a way for people to commute to work efficiently can really help the community.

We desperately need a reliable metro system of some sort on the east side of Lake Washington. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, King County gained an estimated 130,000 new residents in 2010 to 2014. I can only imagine that the rate has increased in the past year. King County’s infrastructure is having issues keeping up with the population growth, especially in terms of commuting.

For those who drive or bus to Redmond from Seattle or vice versa during peak hours, a great deal of time is spent commuting. Going to and from Seattle by bus typically takes me over an hour while I can just see Seattle from a tall building. It’s unreasonable.

From Mercer Island, the potential light rail route goes through South Bellevue Park along the Mercer Slough to the Bellevue Transit Center. Afterwards it crosses I-405 and goes through an area of great concern to me: Spring district and the businesses between Northup Way and Bel-Red Road.

So far, Sound Transit plans to move 168 businesses to construct the rails. They spent $130 million out of $288.5 million for property acquisition. I think it’s a shame though because that happens to be a great cultural center for that Bellevue-Redmond Area.

Despite being somewhat hidden away, I believe there are some great places for dancing, music and martial arts. The Rain City Fencing Center is one of the best schools in the Northwest for training Olympic-grade swordsmen.

Evolution Studios hosts practice rooms and will be displaced by Light Rail construction as well. For a business that supports an area that makes loud noises, this could be a tough transition for the owner and other music businesses in the area while the construction is taking place.

The Light Rail construction could also be detrimental to businesses in the area of construction. For example, the Pacific Northwest Ballet is the best ballet school in the Northwest. They perform the Nutcracker at McCaw Hall on a yearly basis. If aspiring ballet career dancers wanted to seek an alternative school for work, they would have to go to as far as San Francisco or Los Angeles to receive their education. The school doesn’t own the building they use though. The leasing contract shows that the businesses can be displaced at the owner’s will with compensation to the building’s improvements. Pacific Northwest Ballet’s lawyer, Denna Barnett, wants to charge more than the Sound Transit is willing to offer. According to her, there is a “manifest injustice” for what the business is worth but the state estimates that the figures Barnett is asking for costs more than the estimated value of the whole building, not just that area Pacific Northwest Ballet leases.
It seems like it will be expensive to relocate a lot of these businesses already hanging by financial threads. Bellevue real estate is growing in value and relocating such a meaningful cultural hub is disappointing. I’m conflicted though because the practical aspect of gaining the much needed infrastructure of a metro system for companies like Microsoft, a financial workhorse in our local community, is probably worth it.

Pacific Northwest Ballet will likely find another venue if Sound Transit chooses to build through the area. Its presence can be restored in the community but I feel like the local area will lose a lot of its cultural identity in the process.

There are a lot of quirky, hidden businesses such as shops for board games, costumes and a good variety of martial arts gyms for modern and historical practices like MMA and Shaolin Kung Fu that I hope the Light Rail construction will not destroy.