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East Link Light Rail: An Inside Look at Bellevue's Future Commute

March 17, 2022 - by Sandy Vo

Category What's Happening

East Link Light Rail: An Inside Look at Bellevue's Future Commute

A Q&A With Sound Transit

Sound Transit’s core mission is to connect people to where they live, work and play. They currently serve and operate regional transit services throughout the urban areas of Pierce, King and Snohomish Counties.

Map of the East Link light rail system

While Sound Transit runs many projects, their current focus is on the East Link Extension. Roughly 14 miles long, East Link will include ten stations from Seattle's International District to Judkins Park, across I-90 to Mercer Island and South Bellevue, through Downtown Bellevue and the Bel-Red area to Redmond Technology Station. The project is expected to be finished in 2023, allowing riders to travel 40 miles from the Eastside to other parts of the region. 

Bellevue will house six East Link stations, providing workers, residents, and visitors with efficient public transportation. Alongside the East Link Extension, Sound Transit is also partnering with Amazon to build 233 affordable homes adjacent to the new light rail stations in Bellevue. 

Luke Lamon, government & community relations corridor manager at Sound Transit, believes the light rail system has become a more pressing need to accommodate the growth.

Learn more about East Link’s significant milestones, project history, and what we can look forward to in our Q&A with Sound Transit's Luke Lamon.

BDA: Why is it important to bring new transit options to Downtown Bellevue?

Lamon: Right now, Downtown Bellevue is a major center for growth with an increasing number of jobs coming in. Building high capacity transit like East Link has become a necessity, especially with the enhanced footprints of companies like Amazon, Facebook and Vulcan. We’re looking forward to stepping up and filling a need that, frankly, has been there for a while. At the end of the day, we’re trying to give people more transportation choices.

Sound Transit live wire testing in Downtown Bellevue

BDA: East Link has been in the works for a while, can you walk us through the project's history?

Lamon: The early vision for our high capacity transit system came in the last '60s under the name "Forward Thrust."

In 2008, we received voter approval for a regional high capacity transit, including East Link Light Rail. Building these types of projects in the modern age is more complicated due to various factors like landscape changes and expensive real estate. This led to rigorous community engagement and environmental review to ensure we do everything right. In 2015, after completing the design phase, we started construction in Downtown Bellevue at the corner of 112th and Main, now the south entrance of the downtown tunnel.

We’ve been going on close to seven years, and as everyone knows by now, we’ve reached our final phase where we focus on the communications system and power supplies.

BDA: Sound Transit recently did a live wire test in Downtown Bellevue, what was the outcome?

Lamon: In the early testing phases, we primarily focus on the fundamental functions. Elements that like doors opening and closing correctly and lights flashing may seem trivial but they're actually super important to a safe and convenient rider experience. For the testing segment between the Downtown Bellevue station and The Spring District, we connected the overhead wires and made sure the power supply communicated with the trains. The testing will continue in the coming months until the trains are going as far east as Redmond Technology Station, and eventually, we’ll test as far west as Seattle. So far, the testing has all been successful.

BDA: What is the biggest milestone you've completed while introducing the light rail to Downtown Bellevue?

Completed light rail tunnel

Lamon: The most significant milestone in Bellevue was the construction of the Downtown Bellevue light rail tunnel. Initially, we had a plan to do a cut and cover excavation. This meant we would need to excavate from the surface down and build a covering over the top of the hole which would’ve led to street shutdowns and traffic disruptions. By working closely with the City of Bellevue and other partners, we figured out a solution to excavate the tunnel below live traffic. It was one of our most significant risks, but thankfully, it went remarkably well.

BDA: What is your vision for future light rail?

Lamon: We want to continue our partnership with those who helped us bring East Link to life. The City of Bellevue, for example, has been a trusted partner of the East Link light rail from the beginning. In addition, the relationship with the BDA TransManage team has been crucial as they help get the word out to residents and business owners about construction happening around downtown. Our next big piece after the 2023 opening will focus on how to get people to and from these stations safely. We want to up our game around equitability and safety. This may gravitate towards micro-mobility like electric bikes and scooters.

In regards to my vision of the light rail, I hope to see the trains packed full of people. We’re projecting somewhere between 50,000 to 52,000 boarding per day - a transformational east-west connection. We’ve also seen vast growth on the Eastside, both from an employment and housing perspective. I’m hoping the East Link light rail will contribute to a better quality of life for people living, working and playing on both sides of the lake. If we’re able to expand and get people to where they need to be faster, easier, and more reliably, then we’ve done our job well.

This blog is part of the Heart of Bellevue: our campaign to showcase local businesses while connecting you with stories of activity, creativity and recovery. Find out about our campaign and explore more of what’s happening around Downtown.