Expanding light rail to Eastside debated

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Sound Transit's push to expand a light-rail system to the Eastside was less than palatable to the majority of residents who packed a Bellevue City Council public hearing Monday night.

Sound Transit's proposed "ST2" package would ask voters to pay for either a light-rail expansion from Seattle to Bellevue and Redmond, or an expanded express-bus system covering the same area.

"I'm not here to advocate for one choice or the other. I'm here to discuss the need for high-capacity transit," said Sound Transit CEO Joni Earl, who added that Eastside growth drives the need for improved transit.

Sound Transit's board of directors will determine its preferred option July 13. Voters will decide in late 2007 whether to fund the agency's second phase of projects as part of a broader proposal that also includes regional highway improvements.

Most of the speakers Monday opposed the light-rail option, which would run across Interstate 90 over Lake Washington.

Former Republican state Sen. Jim Horn of Mercer Island said adding light rail to the I-90 floating bridge was the plan's biggest problem.

"Moving a train from terra firma onto a floating bridge has never been done," Horn said.

Others said that commuters in East King County are more concerned with traveling between the various communities on the Eastside than between the Eastside and Seattle.

"The problem isn't getting people from Northgate to Redmond, but getting people from Maple Valley to Redmond, or Monroe to Microsoft," said Kirkland resident Steven Pyeatt, who ran unsuccessfully for King County Council last November.

Bellevue artist Craig Thorpe favored light rail, saying it would foster a greater sense of community.

"More and more Americans are realizing that urban rail can help reverse sprawl," Thorpe said. "Now it's Bellevue's turn."

Also Monday, the City Council adopted final changes to the city's long-debated critical-areas ordinance, but postponed action on making sign-code amendments requested last week by developer Kemper Freeman.

The discussion over changes to Bellevue's land-use and building codes followed months of debate and complaints from residents and businesses over the new regulations. The council was hoping to have had the revisions in place by Dec. 1, 2005.

Much of the delay came after a strong public outcry over the strict rules of the ordinance, which increases buffer zones between development and priority environmental-protection areas, such as streams, rivers and wetlands.

Bellevue's new sign ordinance would allow larger entertainment advertisements in the city's downtown area. Previous regulations allowed signage topping out at 300 square feet. The new law would allow signs as large as 400 square feet, but they can reach no higher than 85 feet from the ground. Some council members Monday night expressed concerns about the proposed size and said that, as parents, they worried about possibly inappropriate content on such signs.

Freeman's company requested the change to allow for larger movie advertisements for the theater in his Lincoln Square complex downtown.

Lisa Chiu: 206-464-3347 or lchiu@seattletimes.com

Nathan Hurst: 206-464-2112 or nhurst@seattletimes.com