Kerri Ellis used to walk around Bellevue so often before the coronavirus pandemic that the heels of her Munro boots would need to get resoled twice per year.

Her steps would trace the sidewalk from her home in the Enatai neighborhood to the South Bellevue Park-and-Ride, where she would catch a bus to meet friends for lunch, attend rehearsals at a local theater and work at a law firm in downtown Bellevue.

But after a driver turning left from Northeast 10th Street hit her in November 2019 while she was crossing 156th Avenue Northeast in Bellevue, Ellis, 34, now relies on her parents to drive her most places.

Traffic Lab is a Seattle Times project that digs into the region’s thorny transportation issues, spotlights promising approaches to easing gridlock, and helps readers find the best ways to get around. It is funded with the help of community sponsors Madrona Venture Group and PEMCO Mutual Insurance Company. Seattle Times editors and reporters operate independently of our funders and maintain editorial control over Traffic Lab content.

“I was afraid I was going to die,” Ellis said. “I don’t want to cross that street anymore.”

Ellis was one of 25 people seriously injured in collisions on Bellevue streets last year, with another five killed. So far this year, 10 people have been seriously injured and four killed, including a 92-year-old man who was struck by a car when he stepped into the roadway while attempting to cross Northeast 8th Street.

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Even as pandemic-related budget cuts loom, the deaths and injuries are generating new urgency among street safety advocates and some city officials to fund and implement road safety improvements.

The Bellevue City Council on Monday approved amendments to the city’s 2021-2022 budget that would allow staff to accelerate street safety projects starting next year. A final vote on the budget is expected Monday.

“We definitely need to focus efforts on vulnerable road users because they represent almost half of all fatal and serious injury crashes,” said Franz Loewenherz, a Bellevue transportation planner.

The crash left Ellis, who has Down syndrome, with a concussion, a fractured left arm, a broken shoulder and a bruised leg.

“She talks about her life before getting hit and after getting hit,” Ellis’s mother, Sue Kingston, told Bellevue City Council members in October while advocating for street safety improvements. “No one should have to go through what my daughter is still going through.”


Budgeting for safety

Like cities across the region, the coronavirus pandemic has forced budget cuts in Bellevue, where the city faces a $32 million shortfall in its $1.7 billion two-year budget.

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Departments across the city are cutting spending on travel, consultants and temporary and seasonal help. The city’s transportation department plans to lay off one administrative employee and respond more slowly to sidewalk repairs that don’t present a safety hazard. 

“We have a lot of worthy transportation projects (many of them safety related) but limited revenue, so we’re trying to strike the right balance,” said David Grant, a spokesperson for the city.

A set of planned road safety projects is not on the chopping block, but construction on those projects was not set to start until 2023. But even amid budget cuts, some council members said Bellevue should speed up that spending.

Councilmember Janice Zahn, who has also served on the city’s transportation commission, introduced amendments to the city’s budget that would more quickly fund initiatives related to Vision Zero, a plan Bellevue adopted in 2015 to eliminate all traffic-related fatalities and serious injuries by 2030.

One proposal would split $2.5 million allocated for Vision Zero projects over seven years, with money becoming available starting next year.

Various Bellevue transportation projects have focused on creating connected bicycle lanes throughout the city and relieving congestion. However, the $2.5 million set aside for Vision Zero would specifically provide money for safety projects where fatal and serious injuries are more likely to occur.

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The city will use money to install signs that tell drivers how fast they are traveling, pedestrian crossings and other safety features on parts of Northeast 8th Street, Factoria Boulevard, Bellevue Way, Bel-Red Road and 116th Avenue Northeast. Those are among the major streets where more than half of the city’s fatal and serious traffic injuries occur.

Zahn’s other proposal would speed up the spending of $1.5 million budgeted for designing and building bicycle projects in downtown Bellevue, the Wilburton area and BelRed, known as the Growth Corridor. Her amendment would make $500,000 available each year for three years while the city explores partnerships to bring in more funding. The money was originally scheduled to be spent over five years.

“I think we need to move faster,” Zahn said in an interview. “It’s so important to position us for the future, even when we’re struggling with our budget.”

The amendments received unanimous approval Monday, with Mayor Lynne Robinson noting her support as a bicycle commuter who is “afraid to ride at night right now.”

Slow progress

Since 2015, when City Council members passed a resolution to provide a framework for Vision Zero, efforts have occurred in a piecemeal fashion.

The City Council passed an ordinance in 2016 to include Vision Zero provisions into the city’s Comprehensive Plan. That same year, voters approved a transportation levy that provided money for road projects, sidewalks and bike lanes.

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In the past few years, Bellevue has installed bike lanes on 108th Avenue Northeast and Main Street, used artificial intelligence to make certain intersections safer and completed 37 levy-funded projects, including roundabouts, sidewalks and street lighting.

Finally, in June, the council approved a resolution establishing an approach for Vision Zero that identifies 36 strategies that build upon the city’s safety goals.

But even five years after Bellevue adopted those goals, its Vision Zero Action Plan is still “being finalized,” Grant said. Directors from several departments are reviewing the plan, and City Manager Brad Miyake must give final approval. Drafts are not publicly available.

The pace of progress is sometimes “frustrating to watch,” said Chris Randels, who started the advocacy group Complete Streets Bellevue and pushes the city for more sidewalks, bike lanes and environmentally sustainable transportation options.

“To meet our goals, we need safe speeds and safe streets and an acknowledgment that roads in Bellevue don’t currently meet that criteria,” he said.

Ellis, who was hit and injured last November, is still traumatized by the crash and wants to prevent others from getting hurt, Kingston said.

“I understand there’s limited money. But I hope if they approve this funding, it gives them the ability to start to see the bigger picture,” she said.