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Bellevue makes case for transportation package

The City of Bellevue has experienced remarkable growth in recent years. With a population of 145,300 in 2019, up from 109,569 in the 2000 census, Bellevue now ranks as the fifth largest city in Washington – behind Seattle, Spokane, Tacoma, and Vancouver. Community leaders say the city is doing its part to address infrastructure needs, and it’s time for a new state transportation package to accommodate continued growth.

While assessing population alone is not enough to express urgent issues facing the city, it provides a valuable metric.  While in 2000 only 2,421 people lived in Bellevue’s downtown area, the Bellevue Downtown Association estimated a 2020 population of 14,200. Moreover, downtown Bellevue is also home to about 55,000 workers as of 2020 – an increase of 22,400 workers since 2000. With Amazon creating 25,000 additional jobs and Facebook adding 5,000, that number will skyrocket by 2025.

“Bellevue is very much committed to building the transportation infrastructure needed for growth,” Bellevue City Councilmember Jennifer Robertson said, noting that community leaders have been working to ensure Bellevue is preparing not only for the thousands of new workers but also for the additional job growth and expected influx of new residents resulting from the accompanying economic boost.

Such rapid expansion has produced the significant challenge of highly congested roads. While COVID-19 work-from-home policies have helped mask the issue, stakeholders point to Bellevue’s visible recovery following COVID-19 shutdowns and predicted future growth, expressing the urgent need to address transportation needs.

“The city is coming back; traffic is coming back,” Bellevue Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Joe Fain said. “The city has planned for growth, but the growth plan needs to be expedited in a way that no one predicted.”

Indeed, Bellevue appears positioned to make a strong comeback; given projections that the city will experience approximately 700,000 downtown trips per day by 2030, it’s no surprise that transportation infrastructure has become a top issue.

“Downtown Bellevue is already experiencing 65-70 percent of pre-COVID traffic volumes,” Robertson also noted.

“Bellevue has been preparing for growth for many years, but the rate of growth is faster than anyone anticipated,” she said, pointing to the fact that the city has secured $100 million in federal loans, matched by $200 million in local investments, and every legislative session, city leaders advocate for transportation funding improvements.

Bellevue residents appear just as committed; in 2016 voters approved a levy raising an additional $8 million per year for various transportation improvements.

The last transportation package passed by the Washington State Legislature dates back to 2015 and does not meet current, pressing needs for Washington state – including the Bellevue area, community leaders say. In a letter addressed to the state House and Senate Transportation Committees and co-signed by businesses including Microsoft, Alaska Airlines, REI, Amazon, and T Mobile, the Bellevue Chamber of Commerce requested lawmakers to fund specific projects aimed at solving impending problems. The letter reads in part:

Bellevue and the Greater Eastside experienced a period of dramatic growth in the years following the Great Recession. Even during the pandemic, our permit applications and growth projections remain unprecedented in scope.

We are already planning ahead for this growth in population, employment, and mixed-use development over the next several years. Specifically, Bellevue is expected to gain 10 million new square feet of office space and more than 25,000 new jobs. We ask you to consider funding the following list of projects that were developed in partnership between the City of Bellevue and Bellevue Chamber and are supported by a diverse array of companies and community organizations.

  • SR 520/124th Ave NE Interchange
  • I-405 Access to Downtown Bellevue
  • I-405/SR 520 Interchange Improvements
  • I-405/I-90 Interchange Improvements
  • Mountains to Sound Greenway Trail
  • Eastrail

Cost estimates for the SR 520/124th Ave NE Interchange, I-405/SR 520 Interchange improvements, I-405/I-90 Interchange improvements, Mountains to Sound Greenway Trail, and Eastrail projects total $369.5 million. The Washington Department of Transportation has yet to determine the cost estimate for the I-405 Access to Downtown Bellevue project.

The projects account for just a portion of the work the city has done already working with Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), King County Metro, and on other improvements.

Notably, the city has covered much of the costs for some of the projects listed, collaborating with the Chamber to complete the initial legwork for the projects, including identifying specific funding and design needs.

While costs to improve infrastructure may seem steep – the consequences of state inaction will undoubtedly cost more, stakeholders say, as failing to secure transportation improvements threatens business and residential well-being for years to come.

“These aren’t necessarily forward-thinking investments; these are ‘needed yesterday’ investments,” explained Fain. “The legislature needs to move forward with a transportation package,” he said.

Wallace Properties President Kevin Wallace, a member of the Chamber, underscored the Amazon presence when highlighting the need for state lawmakers to act: “In 2016, there wasn’t a single Amazon job in Bellevue. Now we’re talking about over 25,000. None of the growth Bellevue has experienced was anticipated when the 2015 transportation package was passed.”

And the entire state has an interest in, and will benefit from, addressing these issues, leaders say. Certainly Bellevue’s growth translates into a boost in revenue for the rest of the state.

Wallace points to the “blessing” Amazon has been to the state economy. While the city collects a fraction of the revenue from the sales tax, business and occupation tax, and property tax (it sent over $1 billion in taxes to the state in 2019) Bellevue’s growth means more tax revenue for the entire state – revenue that could have easily wound up in another state entirely.

Robertson echoes the sentiment: “The success of Bellevue means success for the rest of the state” but that “the success of our region is dependent on having a robust multimodal transportation system.”

Ultimately, whether lawmakers deliver on a new transportation package is a matter of priorities. Legislators are grappling with issues unrelated to transportation – including those brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, and many say the number of new tax proposals this session further complicates discussions.

While growth challenges can be viewed as pain-points, the community generally remains focused on opportunity. “I don’t know of another area in the country that is experiencing the same level of job growth,” Wallace said. “Bellevue has done its part. The state needs to step up.”

When Lens Team isn't smoking our own salmon, composting, or hiking, we're parsing the cosmos to deliver you the best stories in Washington state.

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