A small connection that opened Friday in Bellevue will have a big impact on people trying to use the city's busiest bike corridors. (Ryan Packer)

Eastside officials and multimodal transportation advocates broke the ribbon Friday on a small but incredibly valuable new connection between the Eastrail and the State Route 520 bike route, just east of I-405. The new elevated boardwalk, called the Northup Connector, bridges a gap of only a few hundred feet that serves as the logical place to connect between these two trails, but which only existed as a steep slope until now, partially worn away by years of walkers and bike riders pushing their way up and down.

A $2 million donation from REI and Meta in 2020 was able to make the connection happen much sooner than it would have with county funding alone. That cash promise came as Meta finalized a $367 million deal to take over REI’s former headquarters in the Spring District, expanding its presence in Bellevue and signaling that the company had a stake in seeing the vision for the Eastrail walking and biking corridor come to full realization.

The small but impactful Northup Connector will allow people to connect directly from the Cross Kirkland Corridor or Eastrail in Bellevue directly to the bike facilities alongside 520 and Northup Way to head to Seattle or Redmond. (Eastrail Partners)

“The Northup Connector… it’s one of those projects where, once it’s been built, you’re like, ‘Oh, this wasn’t here forever? How could we not think to do this from the very beginning,” Vicky Clarke, policy director with Cascade Bicycle Club, told The Urbanist. “The fact that it connects this north-south spine with the east-west spine of 520, is huge.”

The private donations from Meta and REI covered all but $500,000 of the project’s cost, with that gap filled thanks to pushing from County Councilmember Cluadia Balducci, who has been an ardent advocate for the Eastrail corridor. Construction was handled not by King County, which will now manage the infrastructure, but by Eastrail Partners, the nonprofit advocacy organization that works to complete the 42-mile planned trail stretching from Renton to Woodinville and Redmond. Without outside assistance, the project wasn’t set to be completed until the latter part of this decade, as King County prioritized other projects as part of its 2020 Parks and Open Spaces levy.

The new boardwalk will provide an easy way to connect from the Cross Kirkland Corridor to Bellevue’s on-street bike network or to head across the 520 bridge into Seattle. (Ryan Packer)

“Their investment spurred the type of public-private partnership that we want to continue to make happen for this trail, and for our regional trails,” Katherine Hollis, Eastrail Partners’ executive director said. “Because of this partnership between us as a community nonprofit, corporations and government, this connector was completed years before it was planned to be, and on budget.”

“I believe that government does its best work when we listen to people when they come to us with the things that they need, and the good ideas they have for us, and we are responsive and nimble in doing what people are telling us would work for them,” Councilmember Balducci said Friday before the ribbon-cutting, referencing the well-worn path that existed before. “That was people — many, many people with their feet, telling us this was an important connection.”

The Northup Connector sets the stage for a big year for Eastrail in 2024, as the opening of the NE 8th Street overcrossing in Bellevue coincides with the opening of partial service on Sound Transit’s East Link (2 Line) light rail expansion, with Wilburton Station immediately next door. Earlier this year, Kirkland celebrated the grand opening of its Totem Lake Connector, which grade separates what was one of the trickiest crossings along Eastrail, and the City of Woodinville started work on the conversion of what will become the last segment of Eastrail heading into Snohomish County.

Private donations from companies with a stake in seeing Eastrail completed are not just happening with the Northup Connector. In 2021, Amazon announced that it would be donating $7.5 million to complete the conversion of the Wilburton Trestle bridge, one of the most expensive portions of the Eastrail in Bellevue and a key connection in finally connecting to the segment that’s already open heading down to Renton.

The Northup Connector (green dot at top) is just the start of several planned openings heading down through Bellevue within the next few years. (King County)

“I think the Eastrail is the poster child for how public and private can come together to get behind a vision, and be united, and really joins forces with their resources to build things faster,” Clarke said. “The thing about Eastrail is that it’s the last rails-to-trails project in the region, and it’s really expensive. It’s costing a lot of money to do these local connections, but the connections are what make it great. Being able to leverage the resources that are in the community through the private sector is just going to make it happen faster.”

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Ryan Packer lives in the Summit Slope neighborhood of Capitol Hill and has been writing for the The Urbanist since 2015. They report on multimodal transportation issues, #VisionZero, preservation, and local politics. They believe in using Seattle's history to help attain the vibrant, diverse city that we all wish to inhabit. Ryan's writing has appeared in Capitol Hill Seattle Blog, Bike Portland, and Seattle Bike Blog, where they also did a four-month stint as temporary editor.