Just over a month ago, our region celebrated the opening of three new light rail stations. The day was perhaps the most joyous celebration I’ve been to since the Covid-19 pandemic started, and one of the busiest days on transit since 2019. Thousands of people flocked from around the region to check out the new stations and explore neighborhoods that prioritized people walking, biking, and taking the bus. East Link’s opening is just on the horizon, and it’s easy to imagine the profound impact the new light rail stations will have connecting our region. 

A rendering of the future Overlook Village Station located northwest of the intersection of NE 24th Street and 152nd Avenue NE, the Overlake Village Station runs adjacent to SR 520. Riders will enter from the future Plaza Street along 152nd Avenue NE. The station's design features two entrances, new bicycle and pedestrian connections and a passenger drop-off area.
A rendering of the future Overtake Village Station in Redmond describes its accessibility features for pedestrians and cyclists. (Credit: Sound Transit)

Overlake Village Station will completely transform the Overlake neighborhood in Redmond when it opens in 2023. It will improve access to jobs, affordable housing, and encourage people to visit some amazing local businesses. The majority of the residents of Overlake are people of color, and a high percentage of households are families. Our organization has worked for over 30 years to make it easy to reach Redmond from across the region by walking, biking, and the bus. The growing neighborhood deserves safe streets, clean air, and reliable public transit that will make it an accessible and inclusive place to live.

A map showing the location of the Overlake Village to to SR 520.
(Credit: Washington State Department of Transportation)

However, the Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT) is constructing a new freeway off ramp that will bring thousands more cars per day from SR-520 directly in front of the new light rail station, through an intersection where thousands will walk and roll to the station. We heard serious concerns from those who live or work in Overlake about the safety, noise, and air pollution impacts this freeway off ramp will bring into their neighborhood at our Overlake Walk & Talk earlier this year.

Move Redmond joined with community partners Disability Rights Washington, Front & Centered, 350 Washington, and Redmond residents in calling to halt construction of this project. It cannot go forward as designed. WSDOT should complete an Environmental Impact Statement, conduct community outreach, and commit to prioritizing pedestrian safety, transit access, and full accessibility for people with disabilities. 

A photo showing apartment housing constructed on top of a transit center.
Overlake Village Station will feature more dense and affordable housing in the future as part of its transit oriented development plan. (Credit: City of Redmond)

When the project was first proposed 10 years ago, Overlake looked a lot different. What was once a Group Health campus is now home to hundreds of units of housing. New pedestrian bridges will connect the community and the changes we see today are the tip of the iceberg. Plans for a new park and more retail spaces, community services, and transit-oriented development are in the works. This freeway project disrupts the vision of the Overlake neighborhood where people walking, biking, and rolling come first, one of the few like it on the Eastside.

Currently, 152nd Avenue NE is a quiet neighborhood street with wide sidewalks and protected bike lanes planned, making it the mainstreet of the neighborhood and the primary way for people to walk and roll to the station. But as designed this project will bring an estimated additional 1,200 cars per hour during peak times every day to the street, right through the intersection at the entrance to the station. That’s 21 cars per minute driving though the crosswalks. Such an increase in traffic will create dangerous conflicts between people driving and people trying to access light rail. Air and noise pollution will also impact neighbors’ long-term health. We were surprised to find that this project never completed an Environmental Impact Statement, and did not investigate the health and safety effects of the off ramp to the neighborhood.

A black and white drawing of a planned freeway ramp and the local roads it feeds into.
A detailed rendering of the planned freeway off-ramp near Overlake Village Station in Redmond. (Credit: WSDOT)

The SR-520 Overlake Access ramp project runs counter to meeting our climate and mode shift goals. Last October, the City of Redmond declared a climate emergency with a stated goal to, “Invest in transportation mode-shift by prioritizing pedestrian, bicycle, and transit oriented projects.” In Washington State transportation is a top contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. If we are serious about meeting climate goals, we need to build projects that make it more desirable to walk, bike, and take transit over those that make it easier to drive. 

The ramps are also misaligned with WSDOT’s Target Zero goal of reducing fatalities and serious injuries on our streets. This problem is not unique to Overlake; the I-90 ramps by Judkins Park pose a similar problem to hindering safe access to the light rail. The key difference is that those ramps are decades old. We have the opportunity here to learn from past mistakes and not repeat them. It takes an incredible amount of effort to retrofit the design to be safer and more accessible. Disability Rights Washington has been working on mitigating safety concerns around the Judkins Park station.

“The Judkins park station is just not safe, not even just for people with disabilities, but also for people with kids. If we want to make the Overlake Village Station better and more inclusive, now is our chance,” said Micah Lusignan Santiago, a fellow of the Disability Mobility Initiative, Disability Rights Washington.

A photo shows a man standing in a purple coat with a white cane, near to two men standing in grey coats behind a man seated in a wheelchair with a seeing eye dog. Two women also in coats are crouching next to him.
The Disability Mobility Initiative wants to make sure safe access problems related to freeway ramps at the Judkin’s Park Station are not repeated at the Overlake Village Station. (Credit: Move Redmond)

Is this project the best use of our limited transportation dollars? With an overall price tag of $68 million in a state where we have a huge maintenance backlog, an affordable housing crisis, miles of missing sidewalks, and failing bridges, this project is not a good use of resources, especially as many aspects of it are considered temporary due to redevelopment around it. There are better uses of this funding in the Overlake neighborhood, for example the pedestrian and bicycle bridge on the east side of 148th Avenue NE, helping reconnect a community divided by SR-520 with a safe crossing.  

Finally, will this project even make a dent on congestion reduction? Perhaps, for a short period of time there will be marginally better travel times along that particular stretch of SR-520, but time and time again induced demand has proven that making it easier to drive means more people will, and congestion will return. What actually reduces congestion? Investments in frequent and reliable transit, like East Link light rail, frequent bus service, protected bike lanes, and affordable housing. Especially if the City of Redmond and the City of Bellevue prioritize access to light rail stations for people who take the bus, walk, and bike. 

That is why we are asking you to take action! Tell your state legislators and WSDOT project leaders to halt the project as designed. We are looking forward to working with the City of Redmond, the City of Bellevue, and WSDOT to ensure that the Overlake Village light rail station is a safe, inclusive and accessible station that sets a model for transit access across the region.

We hope you loved this article. If so, please consider subscribing or donating. The Urbanist is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit that depends on donations from readers like you.

Kelli Refer (Guest Contributor)

Kelli Refer is Move Redmond’s Advocacy and Communications Director. Move Redmond is a Transportation Management Association based in Redmond, Washington that advocates for safe streets, trails, and transit access. Kelli also serves on The Urbanist's Executive Board. 

 

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Dperson

You’ll be happy to know that WSDOT is determined to repeat past mistakes, based on this response I received:

Good morning Mr. Dexheimer,
This project has been thoroughly studied and carefully developed since 2009, when we began planning for improvements at SR 520 and 148th Avenue Northeast. The project was identified and funded by the state Legislature as part of the 2015 Connecting Washington transportation revenue package.
 
This is an important safety improvement project for all people. During peak periods, these new ramps will reduce vehicles backing up onto SR 520 and the potential for collisions. This is happening today and needs to be addressed. WSDOT coordinated the design of the project with the cities of Redmond and Bellevue, and with Sound Transit. Based on suggestions from Move Redmond, we have made several changes to our plans to improve safety for people of all abilities not traveling in vehicles, and we will consider other small changes if warranted.
 
Our contractor is already working on the project, which we have spent more than a decade developing. It will improve travel and safety for thousands of people in the Overlake area when we finish it in early 2023. Thank you for taking the time to write to me.
 
Sincerely,
Brian Nielsen
Deputy Regional Administrator

AJ M

If I’m reading the WSDOT documents correctly, the road under 148th will only be for eastbound traffic; there will be no travel lane westbound in-between the roundabout and 148th, correct?

If yes, why not allow for cars to go under 148th and then turn left onto 148th, thereby allowing for the existing 520E->148N offramp to be removed? The 148N->520 on-ramp could then be moved to be flush with SR520, creating nearly a full block than can TODed.

Don Arambula

The grid is a central component of the land use framework.

Land Use_Framework.JPG
Don Arambula

My firm developed the adopted Overlake Village Design Guidelines. What WSDOT is proposing is not consistent with this adopted document.

circulation_framework.JPG
Phil Miller

This project is not and has never been about creating a village street grid. While a lot of the characterizations of the neighborhood in the article are, um, interesting, the fact of the matter is that this is the 3rd Microsoft off ramp. Would this be necessary if Microsoft didn’t provide free parking to a campus the same size and population as UW? Post Covid and East Link, does the demand for daily SOV access to the Entity even continue to justify this?

AJ M

So to be clear, there is still only one ramp exiting SR520, all that is new is cars will have an underpass under 148th to avoiding merge across traffic to turn left off 148th at 24th, in addition to still being able to turn onto 148th? This is not a new interchange like 132nd Street Interchange Project in Kirkland. I think it would be much more accurate to describe this project as creating an new 148th underpass for the existing off-ramp, not a “new” off-ramp.

This project will improve the street grid by creating a 150th street between the Link station and Hopper and creating Hopper between 148 and 151st. Right now, if you are on 148th and want to access the station, you have to walk around 152nd or cut through private property; the new grid will provide a direct pedestrian connection from the station to the neighborhood to the west and southwest.

The 148th underpass will mean less multi-lane merging and less left turns at signalized intersections, both of which make more a much safer environment for everyone walking and rolling, in particular at 148/24th and 152/24. Notably, traffic going under 148th then enters a roundabout, so this is not analogous to the issues at Judkins; a pedestrian walking south from Overlake station can walk over the future Hopper street at 148th, completely grade separated from the exit-ramp traffic, or can cross at the roundabout, an environment both safer and more convenient than a signalized intersection.

It seems to me the new design is safer than the status quo and the improvements to the local grid east of 148th are a worthwhile investment.

Stephen Fesler

Let’s not be pedantic in describing a highway expansion. It dumps cars into the urban village where they wouldn’t be today. A street grid will have to be created as the area is redeveloped, but without this project it wouldn’t be a highway plowing through it to do it. It makes this all less safe and less accessible for people not driving. Cars whipping by every three seconds is a nightmare for this area if WSDOT’s vision is ever realized. Instead of just NE 24th St and 148th Ave NE being a car sewer, 152nd, Turing, Shen, and Calder all become needless car sewers and risk more lives.

AJ M

I do not think it’s pedantic to point out that a 2-lane road is not a freeway; it’s not even an arterial. We are not even talking about cut-through traffic; all this vehicle volume is for the Overlake neighborhood itself.

The cars are going to drive through the urban village anyways, they’ll just be going straight on a 2-lane local street rather than making two signalized left turns on arterials. The data is clear that it is safer, for everyone, for a car to drive on a narrow local street and transverse a roundabout than to take the same trip on arterials with signalized interchanges. It is safer for pedestrians to have a thousand cars drive on Lumiere than for the same thousand cars to make two lefts on 24th and 152th.

The point of this project isn’t to give drivers faster access to Msft, it’s to relocate the queue so it doesn’t back up into 520’s GP lanes during peak hours, a material safety improvement. It should be straightforward for Redmond to maintain their vision east of 148th. If the cars are exiting the off-ramp too fast, put in a speed bump immediately east of 148th. If the cars are too frequent for pedestrians to cross, put in crossing signals that give pedestrians immediate priority.

I think it’s a bit rich to complain about car volumes ruining a street that is literally adjacent to to SR520; the impact on noise will be negligible. These aren’t quiet neighborhood streets either way. Issaquah’s Front Street is a car sewer for several hours each afternoon; it’s still a vibrant local street and just as quick and easy to for a pedestrian to cross as it is any other time of day; frankly, the street is safest at 5pm because cars are inching along rather than rumbling through at 20 mph later in the evening. Overlake will be the same.

Sam

Do you know where the idea for a freeway ramp originated, or who wanted one there? The City of Redmond? WSDOT? ST? King County? Microsoft?

Ed W

It’s Microsoft and the City of Redmond I believe. Pre-Covid, there would always be long backups of Microsoft employees (mostly in SOVs) on all of the eastbound offramps in the area.

Stephen Fesler

It was just Redmond one time in one document. They haven’t been beating the drum since 2011.

Sam

I don’t see the neccessity for a new freeway ramp at that location, especially considering a new light rail line and station will be serving that area soon, but what is the argument why one is needed?