Not long ago, Sound Transit’s grand-opening year for a new Bellevue-Seattle rail route was carved into concrete: 2023.

That number, which appears on tunnel portals above two Bellevue stations, now looms like a tease to travelers and taxpayers. Project directors have learned that about 5,400 concrete track ties in the former Interstate 90 express lanes were too brittle or misaligned to withstand decades of pounding by the 300-ton trains. By the time they’re rebuilt, followed by signal installation and practice runs, Link service across Lake Washington can’t begin until at least the latter half of 2024.

This delay provoked Sound Transit officials to ask: Can we move people in the meantime, by opening an Eastside-only starter line? Trains could go from south Bellevue near I-90, through downtown Bellevue, to the Microsoft campus near Highway 520.

“I see the stations, the empty parking spaces, the catenary wires that power the trains, and think surely we should put it to use,” Sound Transit board member Claudia Balducci, of Bellevue, said last week.

She jump-started the effort three months ago, in a Seattle Times op-ed. “Because of the continued population growth, coupled with an influx of new businesses and an affordable-housing crisis, we can’t afford to wait another year or more without new mobility solutions on the Eastside,” Balducci wrote.

“I have gotten more support for this idea than anything I’ve ever proposed,” says Balducci, a Metropolitan King County Council member who has served in elected positions since 2004. Voters approved higher sales taxes in 2008 to build the $3.7 billion East Link and other regional extensions.


Sound Transit’s new CEO, Julie Timm, said the staff is gathering facts about how to make it happen. Timm will provide updates starting in mid-November, so the board of directors can decide in January or February. “I want to make sure we do this with the idea of starting with ‘yes,'” until shown otherwise, she said in an interview.

Eventually the complete corridor, called the 2 Line, will go from downtown Redmond through Bellevue and Mercer Island, via I-90 into the International District/Chinatown Station, adding a projected 49,000 average daily riders by 2030. In addition, 2 Line trains will continue north, sharing tracks with the 1 Line to Northgate and Lynnwood.

The mayors of Redmond, Bellevue and Kirkland, public-policy executives from Amazon, Google, Meta and Microsoft, and 11 other Eastside leaders co-signed an endorsement letter for the starter line.

“Ongoing delay has other costs,” they wrote. “Current transit riders between Bellevue and Redmond endure a 40-minute trip that with the opening of an Eastside line would otherwise turn into a 17-minute trip, saving thousands of hours of travel time.”

Timm praised the starter-line idea at a Bellevue Downtown Association breakfast forum Oct. 25, while cautioning that the agency would need 12 to 15 months to satisfy federal safety protocols, The Urbanist reported.

That figure is based on early talks with the Federal Transit Administration, which must approve a partial segment, Timm says.


FTA would make no comments yet about a partial line, except to say it’s “aware of the ongoing delays with the project and is committed to helping Sound Transit deliver the East Link Extension Project in accordance with all applicable laws and regulations.” A generation ago, the feds approved a so-called minimum operating segment from Westlake Station to Tukwila, when Sound Transit couldn’t afford to reach the University District and Angle Lake in the 2000s.

Change of direction

Most pieces are in place to run an eight-station Eastside service.

Stations and trackway are more than 98% complete, progress reports say. Train tests under electric power are scheduled for this week, through the Spring District of northeast Bellevue. Railcars can use the new Bellevue maintenance base, without need to cross the lake overnight to the Sodo base.

A giant 1,500-stall park-and-ride garage and bus bays are ready at South Bellevue Station, the interim terminus.

Redmond Technology Station, next to the Microsoft campus, is designed for quick turnarounds where trains can depart from either side of the central platform, with help from a crossover switch nearby, like the 2021 Northgate Station in Seattle. On the south end, trains would employ the switch next to East Main Station, a mile north of South Bellevue Station, which might cause brief delays.

But first, officials need to answer strategic questions.

What are the labor costs, logistics and obstacles to sustain live service on land at the same time contractors finish their I-90 work, and train operators practice running the world’s first transit trains on a floating bridge? Would those tasks delay other segments or regional projects?


Timm also said the agency and contractor Kiewit-Hoffman are hammering out a strategy to accelerate the I-90 segment. If they succeed, it reduces how long an Eastside-only line might be useful.

Balducci said: “My gut feeling is, if the delay is six months or less, I don’t know if it works. If it’s more than two years we should certainly do it. In between? We would have a discussion.”

Board Chair Kent Keel said he’s anxious to learn more. He likes an Eastside starter segment, so long as it doesn’t hinder “the endgame, which is the full line going in both directions.”

Even if a starter line gets the green light, Sound Transit might still wind up changing those engraved tunnel portals to read 2024.