A major goal of Sound Transit is to connect “regional centers” with high capacity transit. On the Eastside, those centers include downtown Bellevue, Redmond Overlake, downtown Redmond, Issaquah, and Totem Lake. Sound Transit Phase 2, which is under construction now, will reach Bellevue and Overlake, and the current Sound Transit 3 proposal would add downtown Redmond and Issaquah. The question for the region is, what is the best way to get high capacity transit to Kirkland’s Totem Lake urban center?
One proposal that has gotten a lot of attention – both positive and negative – is to run light rail up the Eastside Rail Corridor and Cross Kirkland Corridor from the Wilburton station in Bellevue behind Whole Foods. I believe a better alternative would be to extend light rail from the currently planned terminus on the Redmond Central Connector near Leary Way, northward along the Redmond Spur of the Eastside Rail Corridor, along Willows Road and NE 124th Street, and into Totem Lake from the east.
Why would this “Willows Route” be preferred?
The key advantage is that it would cost far less than light rail on the CKC. Extending the Redmond light rail line to Totem Lake would require only 4.3 miles of new track. Extending from Wilburton up the CKC would require 7.2 miles of new track – a whopping 67% more.
Then consider the bridges needed. The CKC route requires new bridges or expanded underpasses under SR520, under I-405 in Bellevue, over NE 68th Street, over Kirkland Way, under NE 85th Street, under NE 116th Street, under I-405 in Totem Lake, and over the intersection of NE 124th Street and 124th Avenue NE. The Willows Route requires new bridges over Redmond Way, over the Sammamish River, over 154th Avenue NE, and over the intersection of Willows Road and NE 124th Street. That’s half as many bridges. There would also be fewer surface crossings on the Willows route, and they would be on lower-volume roads. And the CKC route involves crossing many wetlands and streams that would require elevated sections, which is not a problem on the Willows route.
The Willows line could include a station near Overlake Christian Church to serve Digipen Institute and the many employers nearby including Physio Control, Aerojet, and Astronics. An agreement with Overlake Christian could allow their large parking lot, which is mostly unused during the work day, to be a regional park and ride for people driving in from points east, with no new capital cost.
There’s also potential to connect a Willows Road station to the thousands of homes in the North Rose Hill neighborhood up the hill to the west. Kirkland has long dreamed of creating a safe pedestrian and bicycle greenway connection from NE 100th Street on Rose Hill to the Sammamish River Trail in the valley below. Pedestrians and bicyclists could get up and down the steep hill safely and easily using ramps, moving sidewalks, escalators, and similar technology. This connection would make the Willows station accessible to thousands of students at Lake Washington Institute of Technology. And with the existing bridge over I-405 at NE 100th Street, the station would also be reasonably accessible to bicyclists in the Highlands neighborhood and others along the CKC.
What might be the concerns with light rail up Willows Road?
Riding the train through downtown Redmond may seem a bit out of the way for people commuting between Totem Lake and downtown Bellevue or Seattle. But many of those who will live in Totem Lake and surrounding areas will be commuting to Redmond or Microsoft, and the Willows route would mean they would have a shorter ride without changing trains in Bellevue. Also, people traveling from Totem Lake to Seattle wouldn’t have to change trains in Bellevue and stand on a crowded train for the second half of their trip.
The Willows route wouldn’t serve downtown Kirkland with high capacity transit. But the fact is that downtown is very difficult to serve in a cost-effective way because of all the existing development, because the height of the water table may make it hard to tunnel under, and because it is so close to the lake that the service area from which a station would draw is much smaller than it would be if the route were further east. Serving downtown Kirkland with transit cost-effectively will likely require an east-west connection. Besides, downtown Kirkland is not a designated urban center, and many people don’t want it to be.
The Willows route wouldn’t serve the Google campus directly, but a Willows station would serve more employees in more businesses than a stop at Google. The light industrial area around Google is surrounded by homes and there would be strong resistance to any expansion, which means employment growth there is limited, while there is far more potential for growth along Willows. We should think about what is best for the region and not just what is best for Kirkland.
Putting light rail on the CKC will always have strong neighborhood opposition, because it would be literally in the back yards of hundreds of homes. There might be some angst about going along the edge of the protected agricultural area in the Sammamish Valley, but the simple fact is that putting light rail along Willows Road is in nobody’s back yard. The path of least resistance to get light rail to Totem Lake is up Willows Road, not up the CKC.
ST3 proposes light rail from Overlake to southeast Redmond, then a big left turn into downtown Redmond. That line is perfectly positioned to extend further northwest to the next urban center in Totem Lake, and then, in a future phase, to extend again to the next urban center in Bothell.
This Willows Route should be included in ST3 in order to garner increased voter support in Kirkland. But if it isn’t. at the very least it needs to be part of the proposed Bothell-to-Bellevue transit corridor study to insure that all viable alternatives are considered.
Toby Nixon is a member of the Kirkland City Council. This editorial presents his personal opinion and not that of the City of Kirkland or the city council.