New thinking about Sound Transit’s controversial maintenance base in Bellevue.

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THE Puget Sound region’s economy appears to be finally back on track, and is now one of the fastest growing areas in the country. There is one bump in the road, however, that threatens our region’s sustained economic growth: the fact that getting from home to work and back again means hours of sitting in traffic congestion.

Like many urban areas, the Puget Sound region grew up around the car. Housing moved away from city centers, along with jobs in many cases. We saw a boom in office campuses, suburban housing developments and big investments in highways. This dispersed growth pattern has made it difficult to get a comprehensive mass-transit system that serves the places people need to go. These factors mean that driving places is still the most practical option for many people. The result is traffic gridlock.

With the region’s population expected to grow by almost 30 percent and jobs by 40 percent by 2040, we have to change the way we shape and build communities if we expect a better outcome.

Two cities that have taken an important step in the right direction are Redmond and Bellevue. Within the last 10 years, these two cities adopted new zoning plans in the Bel-Red Corridor that are already transforming parts of this warehouse and commercial district into new mixed-use, urban-style neighborhoods.

Sound Transit responded by locating several new light-rail stations for its East Link extension in this corridor. Sitting between Bellevue and Redmond’s job centers, Bel-Red is one of the best examples of “smart growth,” when regional light-rail investments are paired with local land-use decisions to align new development with mass transit making it much easier for people to leave their cars behind.

The new zoning plans are already generating substantial investment in walkable, vibrant urban neighborhoods with housing, jobs, restaurants, groceries, basic services, trail connections and public spaces. The community’s embrace of the new vision and private investments — such as the $2.3 billion Spring District development, which broke ground at the future 120th Avenue light-rail station last year — underscore the plan’s viability and promise for the region. We can accommodate growth and minimize traffic if we implement good land-use planning around transit investments.

But Sound Transit’s decision last year to locate the nearly 25-acre Operations and Maintenance Satellite Facility just 400 feet from one of the Bel-Red corridor’s new light-rail stations, in the heart of one of these new neighborhoods, left many people scratching their heads. That decision threatens to diminish the region’s ability to absorb job and population growth and runs counter to every adopted transportation and land-use plan, including Sound Transit’s own policies.

Why should we care? In practical terms, it limits the number of people who can live or work within walking distance of the new station and forces them into their cars, making everyone’s traffic worse than it would otherwise be.

Sound Transit needs the maintenance facility, but its board recognized the problem it created by siting it in Bel-Red and asked a group of local and regional stakeholders to recommend ways to mitigate this tough decision. Late last year, we joined this diverse group of citizens, community leaders and business owners and worked together with Sound Transit staff, the City of Bellevue and King County to develop a comprehensive solution.

The effort was successful. A creative new maintenance-base design emerged and tentative agreements were made among the government agencies on a plan that not only meets Sound Transit’s operational needs, but returns at least some of the development capacity around and within the boundaries of the base by incorporating the necessary infrastructure to support smart growth development.

Instead of permanently losing 25 acres of prime land zoned for high-density residential and mixed uses within walking distance of the station to an industrial use, the tentative agreements call for restoring more than one-third of that high density capacity by creating parcels and infrastructure to allow apartment and office buildings to be built around the edges and within the perimeter of the maintenance base. Some of this “recovered” capacity would be created by building new road and sidewalk overpasses that will cross over the tracks to provide access to parcels within the footprint of the base.

Developers will find these parcels attractive and the sale of them would help offset the cost of the maintenance base. In particular, one or more of these parcels could be an excellent location for an affordable or workforce-housing development much like Imagine Housing built at the Kirkland Park and Ride. The new base design and tentative agreements between Sound Transit, King County and the City of Bellevue make this possible.

While we expect the Sound Transit board will approve plans for the maintenance base at its April 23 meeting, time is running out on an agreement that moves the design off the drawing board and into reality.

The land around our transit stations is scarce, making it imperative we do not let this valuable resource go to waste. If the Sound Transit board doesn’t adopt the stakeholder’s recommendation or if it can’t agree with the City of Bellevue and King County on the details of the plan, all of us who count on smart growth as one of the remedies to traffic congestion and environmental degradation will lose, and lose big.

With this decision, these three government bodies hold one of the keys that give the Puget Sound region unprecedented opportunity to shape a more sustainable, livable future. More than $18 billion has been invested in building out a rapid-transit system and supporting plans like the Bel-Red corridor plan that align growth with transit investments. In the end, the return on our expensive transit investments will be measured not just by how many people leave their cars behind, but by the environmental, social and economic benefits they bring to our region.

Sound Transit can send a strong message that it understands the benefit to the region of density around light-rail stations by approving the innovative maintenance-base plan and reaching a funding agreement with Bellevue and King County that will make it a reality. Action like this will help build the confidence the public needs to continue to support high-capacity transit investments.