Pay to pave

The City of Bellevue turns RTA bus money into funding for car lanes.

So you thought your RTA tax money was going to build public transit? Think again. Out in downtown Bellevue one of the first RTA projects, costing upwards of $100 million, is racing toward approval. While the project is ostensibly aimed at building a system of bus ramps, much of the RTA money will in fact be spent knocking down and then expanding two big downtown Bellevue arterials that serve regular suburban traffic.

The project suggests that the worst fears about the Regional Transit Authority are already coming true: that the agency and its billions of dollars of tax money are going to become a goodie bag for all sorts of schemes only dimly related to transit. Also, contrary to its earlier assurances to environmental groups, the RTA clearly intends to steamroll through its plan for massive—and hugely expensive—freeway ramps for buses without examining other potential ways to improve transit ridership and speed.

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The area in question is a central knot of Eastside traffic congestion, where I-405 passes through Bellevue. NE Eighth Street—the city's main boulevard into downtown—crosses over 405, drawing six lanes of cars to and from Bellevue Square mall, the center of Eastside commerce and culture. A large cloverleaf at NE Eighth spins cars off and onto the freeway.

For years, the City of Bellevue has been seeking ways to improve traffic flow in the area, looking at such low-cost refinements as one-way arterials. Then, in November 1996, Puget Sound voters agreed to raise their taxes to fund the RTA and its transit plan, known as "Sound Move." The plan earmarked $258 million to build exclusive "HOV access" ramps at several points along Eastside freeways so that buses and carpools could get on and off with ease. Of that money, $66 million was tagged for an HOV connection to I-405 in downtown Bellevue.

Suddenly the path was cleared for the biggest traffic project in Bellevue history. The City came up with a plan to wedge the RTA bus ramps into the freeway at NE Sixth Street, where they will feed into the city's Transit Center. And to make the ramps fit there, the existing overpasses at NE Eighth and NE Fourth—some twelve traffic lanes in all—must be replaced by bigger overpasses. Hence comes a massive road project, ostensibly undertaken to accommodate the bus ramps, with the RTA picking up nearly the whole tab.

Taking inflation into account, the RTA will likely cover about $78 million of the $110 million project. Only $23 million will be spent directly on the bus interchange. The other $53 million of RTA funds will go toward widening the freeway (in order to make room for the HOV ramps), designing and building the new arterials, rerouting traffic, etc.

When the construction nightmare is over, perhaps in 2003, the project will have done a huge favor to downtown Bellevue businesses—including, ironically, Bellevue Square, whose owner Kemper Freeman, Jr., was the RTA's most vociferous opponent. The rebuilt overpasses will come with additional lanes (which the city of Bellevue hopes to pay for with state and federal money). The overpasses will also extend further out than immediately required so as to allow future widening of I-405 (a long-held dream of the Bellevue Chamber of Commerce). In addition, Bellevue officials will be able to complete the transformation of the NE Fourth overpass—which was built only ten years ago, partly for HOV use—into a bigger mainline thoroughfare for single-occupancy cars.

The RTA has raised no objection to this use of public-transit monies to build roads for cars. The transit agency's HOV coordinator is Bill Guenzler, who, as it happens, spent the last ten years as transportation director for the city of Bellevue. "I don't think [the I-405 interchange] compares all that badly with other Sound Move projects," he says. He points out that the Bellevue ramps will serve seven RTA bus routes, whereas other, similarly expensive Eastside ramps will serve only two.

Bellevue officials forecast that the project will help relieve congestion in their downtown by ten percent. But officials at the Washington State Department of Transportation fear that it will simply shift that congestion onto the freeway. Says John Villager, a WSDOT engineer who is liaison to the Bellevue project: "When you cram too many interchanges together you get shorter ramps and slower exit speeds." That in turn can cause a backup on the freeway itself. Villager says his agency doubts that this project "would prove out if we ran it through our cost-benefit analysis." But since the bill is being paid by the RTA rather than the DOT, the project needn't meet that standard.

Still, DOT officials concede they couldn't come up with a better solution for the bus ramps. "To make the HOV system work on the Eastside, you need to have the Bellevue component there," says Craig Stone of the DOT's Office of Urban Mobility. "In terms of layout and design, we couldn't come up with something better."

The obvious solution of installing the bus ramps at NE Fourth Street—the present route for buses heading on and off 405—was nixed early on by Bellevue officials. "It wouldn't make a positive contribution to reducing traffic congestion in downtown Bellevue," says the city's chief transportation planner Tom Noguchi. The city certainly got no encouragement from the business community, which has been lobbying for some time to get rid of the HOV lanes at NE Fourth rather than add to them.

Based on a number of complex assumptions, Bellevue's consultants forecast that the gargantuan project will save buses about five minutes of travel time. Still, by the terms of the RTA's own charter, the agency is supposed to seek out ways to improve its bus system other than throwing up expensive concrete ramps. As the RTA's own pre-election brochure stated: "Before building individual HOV access ramps, the RTA... [will assess] whether there are ways to achieve equivalent transit speed, reliability and ridership at a lower cost or by making transportation system management improvements instead." Two exemplary alternatives suggested by environmentalists: something along the lines of the University of Washington's free U-Pass program, or traffic signals that automatically turn green for buses.

But it's plainly apparent that the RTA has no serious intention of following through on this pledge. The agency's consultants haven't yet started their research on alternatives. And Bill Guenzler says the funding for this work (an examination of all 14 of the RTA's HOV ramp projects, including the one in Bellevue) will be "well under $100,000"—about enough to pay for a consultant's lunch hour.

Peter Hurley of the Washington Coalition for Transportation Alternatives (or Alt-Trans)—the first to raise objections to the Bellevue project—says the RTA "has an ethical obligation to do a real alternatives analysis, as they promised the voters they would. You could buy a transit pass for every man, woman, and child in the city of Bellevue for the cost of this project... and still have a good chunk of money left over to improve service."

Related Links:

Public Interest Transit Forum

Link to a map of Bellevue

Washington's Transit Improvement Board

Washington's Department of Transportation

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