Light Rail Seattle

Seattle's Light Rail Opens, Redefining Life in the City

Seattle Central Link Light Rail Map14-mile project is the first in a number of planned lines for Seattle.

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.

10 replies on “Seattle's Light Rail Opens, Redefining Life in the City”

Saturday was a banner day for Seattle. As one of the greying portion of the population who voted yes 40 years ago, it was a long, but worthwhile wait. Sound Transit did a terrific job of coordinating the opening; there were few glitches and the system is rather elegant. Lots of oohs and ahs as people visited neighborhoods they’d never seen and admired the art, proving again that Seattle really is Mayberry with skyscrapers. Onward to the University of Washington!

This is great news. Mass transit takes another step forward in the U.S! I look forward to following the expansion of the system in the years to come.

I’ve been following the reaction in Seattle’s local newspaper. Apparently most of the people who actually live in Seattle are pro-LRT, and those who live outside Seattle are singing the Boondoggle Chorus.

From what I’ve read, though, this is quite an impressive line. It actually isn’t light rail, but is more of a “light metro” which is designed so it operates somewhat between a true light rail and a true subway (they plan to have it operate at 50+ MPH in some sections, and they designed the platforms to accommodate 4 car trains, whereas LRT usually has 1 or 2 cars. I don’t know if it ever runs in the street and has to wait for traffic lights, but if it doesn’t, it’s more of a light metro of sorts. St. Louis Metrolink is like that, where although it has grade crossings, it has its own ROW and high level platforms, and runs at 55-60 MPH.

I took my 10 month old daughter to ride LRT on Opening Day, Saturday. She probably won’t remember, but she will certainly know daddy is a train geek. ST did a great job of keeping things orderly and showcasing the line, including all the excellent art! There is a beautiful view of Mt. Rainier when the track turns in Tukwila and I heard trains were hitting 57mph on the stretch north of that. We were keeping pace with cars on the highway – and there was no congestion. Ridership on the initial segment will probably be lower than anticipated for a couple years due to the economy and the fact that we built it without parking, preferring long-term transit-oriented development around the stations. I think that’s the right strategy, but of course the curmudgeons who want to drive to a station are all in a tizzy. Bus routes won’t change to feed the LRT until September, which is unfortunate. When it finally reaches Northgate (2019?) and goes East (2021?) it will have many more riders because it will be able to form the core component of many more regional trips. Our geography and geology make rail very expensive to build here, but over time, people will realize what tremendous value this system brings to the city. The NW is certainly making great strides this year with Seattle, Portland and Vancouver, B.C. all opening new rail lines!!!

This is great. I live in Seattle, and since the last five years, transit ridership has been going up vary fast (7% between 06 and 07, 9% between 07 and 08, and 11% between 08 and 09) Seattleites are fed up of cars and car culture. Apart from the massive transit system already approved, the new mayor wants another vote for more light rail expansion to the city’s west side (where the monorail was going to be)

When it comes to transportation, the northwest gets it. Portland just opened another line and is planning another 13 mile extension, Vancouver just opened the Canada line and is working on the Evergreen line, and Seattle finally got transit.The future looks good for us.

Congratulations Seattle folks. Here in Sacramento, we’re still in the 50’s with a new second parking lot at the airport where fees helped finish a billion dollar additon with no public transportation. The forth largest city in California has no public transportation i.e. light rail extension to the airport. It’s very embarrassing. I am so sick of supporting that new parking lot at $7 to 12 a day. Seems to me if we wanted more business, tourists, and jobs making the round trip from Sacramento to the airport should be a piece of cake instead of costing a fortune to park. Again congratulations. Wishing it was us too.

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