It’s been a long time since voters approved funding for Seattle’s first light rail line, but the city’s citizens finally got their chance to ride a modern public transportation system this weekend. Sound Transit’s Central Link line, connecting downtown with Tukwila, is the culmination of decades of work intended to make alternative transportation work in the city, and its opening was an exciting event in U.S. transit history.
In 1968 and 1970, Seattle politicians pushed referendums called Forward Thrust that would have raised about $400 million in local funds and $800 million in federal dollars for the construction of a major new heavy rail subway system. The failure of both measures meant the loss of what had been earmarked Washington money and a transfer of the same to Atlanta, which proceeded to construct MARTA. The transit issue lost political support in Seattle for several decades as a result.
Only in the late 1980s did proponents again begin advocating a new transit system. Greg Nickels, who became mayor in 2002, got an advisory measure on the ballot in 1988 asking citizens whether they’d be interested in light rail by 2000 — and the electorate voted heavily in favor, but no financing was arranged. After the failure of a large transit program in 1995, voters approved the Sound Move referendum in 1996, which increased sales and vehicle registration taxes to fund a light rail system for the region.
Sound Transit (ST), the new agency in charge of the project (King County Metro continues to run buses in much of the area), had a number of difficulties in the late 1990s and early 2000s convincing politicians and city residents that the light rail plan was the best solution to Seattle’s transportation woes. ST had trouble finalizing the route and continually underestimated costs.
But the most significant barrier was the Seattle Monorail Project, which was a populist plan to build a five-line elevated rail network that proponents claimed could be sponsored by private funds, and which was approved by referendum in 1997; voters passed other supporting referendums in 2000 and 2002 (which now included public financing) and rejected an attempted repeal in 2004. The project was supposed to begin construction in 2005. Yet expected tax returns came in far lower than initially expected, and the project was canceled due to a lack of funds and a subsequent voter dismissal of the project.
Meanwhile, ST, working quietly in the background, completed the short Tacoma Link light rail system in that city’s downtown in 2003; the line was popular enough to encourage Seattleites to envision a light rail network running through Seattle itself. A $2.4 billion 16-mile route between SeaTac Airport and the Downtown Bus Tunnel was chosen as the first element of the program, with an extension north to the University of Washington planned for later service. Construction began in late 2003, and total costs came in $100 million under initial estimates. The airport station has yet to be completed and will open in December.
The opening of this first light rail line comes later than expected, but the city has planned well and its citizens will benefit from high quality, fast service. Platforms at each of the line’s twelve initial stations are 400 feet long, prepared to handle what is likely to be a strong influx of traffic as more and more people switch modes to transit. Seattle’s light rail is more like a metro in many ways, as its per-train carrying capacity — up to 800 — puts it in the big city league, and its speeds are much quicker than those of street-running light rail such as the systems in downtown Portland or Dallas. Next year, the project is expected to attract about 25,000 daily riders, a number that is almost certainly an underestimation considering ridership trends in other American cities.
The light rail program has gradually attracted increasing support from the Seattle community. Last year, voters came out strongly in favor of an $18 billion ST2 measure (after the failure of a Roads and Transit plan in 2007), which authorized extensions north, east, and south in addition to the University Link, which will open in 2016. The complete 53-mile network could attract up to 280,000 daily riders by 2030. Seattle is also simultaneously planning a significant investment in streetcar lines.
Seattle’s opening this weekend, then, is only the beginning of a much larger movement. Against so many odds, Seattle finally has its light rail.
Image above: Link light rail map, from Sound Transit
* Note: this piece was auto-posted; the transport politic will be back in normal operation on Thursday the 23rd.