Bellevue is asking Sound Transit to build a light-rail tunnel under the city's downtown, even though that would add $600 million to the cost and leaders don't know yet where to find the money. Microsoft is fighting the effort, telling Sound Transit it should put the tracks on the surface instead of underground, so money...

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Bellevue is asking Sound Transit to build a light-rail tunnel under the city’s downtown, even though that would add $600 million to the cost and leaders don’t know where to find the money.

Microsoft is fighting the effort, telling Sound Transit it should put tracks on the surface instead of underground, so money can be saved to extend the tracks farther east — perhaps to downtown Redmond.

On May 14, transit-board members will choose a design and route to be the front-runner for environmental-impact studies, though they may continue to study other options. A final decision will be made next year.

When voters last fall approved sales taxes for a regional transit expansion, cost estimates were based on building a cheaper elevated or surface line that would total $2.8 billion (in 2007 dollars) from Seattle to Mercer Island, Bellevue and Overlake by 2021.

Although Bellevue leaders have backed light rail, they long have favored a tunnel instead of elevated or surface tracks that block views and cross the four east-west arterials.

“Bellevue needs something that works for the Bellevue community,” Mayor Grant Degginger said.

He said downtown Bellevue deserves consideration because it is an economic engine that sends a huge amount of sales-tax income into the regional light-rail fund.

“It’s certainly a 100-year decision.”

Bellevue’s tunnel fever is understandable, given the area’s hilly landscape and narrow streets. Downtown Seattle has its transit tunnel. This summer, when light-rail service begins from Seattle to Tukwila, trains will go through a Beacon Hill tunnel, and construction soon will start on a tunnel through Capitol Hill.

But tunneling is a reason we have one of the costliest light-rail systems on Earth, and why it’s taking a quarter century to reach the suburbs, after voters first approved Seattle light-rail taxes in 1996.

Transit staffers say tunneling through downtown would take a year longer than a surface route — if a financial plan can be patched together by 2010.

Microsoft believes the goal must be “getting the line built as quickly as possible,” Jim Stanton, senior community-affairs director, told the transit governing board. “The success of East Link is directly tied to our ability to deliver regional mobility in a coordinated and cost-effective way.”

Among other motivations, the company doesn’t want the line to end in Overlake, drawing park-and-ride traffic toward its campus there. If tracks go farther to Redmond, employees from Sammamish, east Redmond and Woodinville can step aboard there, he said.

Political support exists for three routes:

Cut-and-cover tunnel

A cut-and-cover tunnel is built by digging open the street, pouring concrete underground in a sort of shoebox shape, then laying a new ceiling and street. The shoebox would wind from Main Street to 106th Avenue Northeast, then emerge on the east slope of downtown at Northeast Sixth Street.

From there, a rail overpass could land east of Interstate 405 to a station near Whole Foods, Group Health and Overlake Medical Center.

A pedestrian bridge could reach across Northeast Eighth Street, where the city changed its land-use plan for higher density. A mix of housing and retail business gradually would replace auto sales and other commercial lots.

The City Council endorsed this tunnel version unanimously, and hopes to include an underground station close to Downtown Park. The disadvantage is that streets would be torn up four to six years, project manager Don Billen said.

The popular downtown bus center, built for $26 million, would have to be replaced, scattering riders to other streets. The elevated segment on Sixth could obstruct Meydenbauer Center.

Ali Biria, part-owner of Main Street Plaza, which includes Toshi’s Teriyaki, said street closures during construction would kill small businesses, in much the way a transit trench on Seattle’s Third Avenue caused blight in the 1980s.

“Two or three years of it? We would probably move,” said Ginny Morris, manager of the nearby Foot Zone running-gear store.

Bored tunnel

Instead of breaking up the streets, contractors would bore horizontally through the soil.

Most streets and the transit center could stay open, while frequent dump-truck traffic would haul away excess dirt.

Because this option would mean less chaos for businesses, the Bellevue Downtown Association favors this approach.

The line would emerge from the tunnel and then bridge I-405 near Northeast 12th Street, instead of Sixth. A station could be near the freeway, serving condo dwellers on one side and medical centers on the other.

However, columns or the station would wipe out smaller medical offices, such as the Overlake Internal Medicine group. Dr. Elisabeth Anton, of nearby Bellegrove Obsterics & Gynecology, said about 1,100 clients a day are served by small clinics near the freeway — and only the cut-and-cover route on Sixth avoids ousting some of them.

Surface route

Bellevue’s huge “superblocks” make it possible for a four-car train to stop next to City Hall without blocking an intersection. But opponents complain that train crossings would force east-west drivers to stop, or create congestion.

Billen recently said motorists would have traffic-signal priority over trains. But Degginger is skeptical at what sounds like a sudden flip-flop. Trains would prevail over cars at stoplights when light rail begins in Seattle’s Rainier Valley. From a regional point of view, one drawback is that a ride on the street would take two minutes longer than a ride in a tunnel or on an elevated line, Billen said.

However, he said, among U.S. light-rail cities, only three use tunnels, while 14 run trains on the streets — to save money, but also because some cities like the look and sound of trains.

Degginger replied that, on a fact-finding tour of West Coast cities, some light-rail agencies regretted the decision to mix with street traffic.

Recently, transit managers said the recession might blow a $2.1 billion hole in the new 15-year, $18 billion regional plan for lines to Overlake, Lynnwood and north Federal Way. Money for a tunnel will be that much harder to find, said Sound Transit Chairman Greg Nickels, the Seattle mayor, who has insisted on highway and transit tunnels for his city.

Bellevue has just begun working on concepts.

These include low-cost track alignments on the surface east and south of downtown; requests for federal grants; a state sales-tax exemption on transit construction; city right-of-way donations, or a tax on Bellevue properties.

Even if there are ways to scrimp on the non-downtown portions, the argument remains over whether to use the savings for a longer line, or for a downtown tunnel.

Transit-board member Paul Roberts of Everett — which is beyond the light-rail plan’s reach — said he will listen to Bellevue’s views but his inclination is to think long-distance.

“I am very interested in connecting the dots, reaching the employment and population centers as fast as we can finish the system,” said Roberts, a member of the Everett City Council. “… To the extent options pull money away from that objective, I will have challenges with that.”

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com