Sound Transit’s Rough Road to Light Rail

Sound Transit’s Rough Road to Light Rail

The region’s first foray into light rail was fraught, and still colors how some see the agency that built it.

When voters say “yes” or “no” this fall to Proposition 1, they in essence will be saying “yes” or “no” to light rail.

Elsewhere in this package you have read arguments for and against ST3, and nearly every one of those arguments will come down to whether or not the light rail system now in its infancy in Seattle should be expanded region-wide, from Tacoma to Everett, from Redmond to West Seattle.

Central to arguments both for and against will be the region’s history so far with light rail, with proponents arguing that it has fundamentally changed the way people get around Seattle — and that that shift is necessary for the entire region — and opponents saying it has been too slow in coming on line, too expensive to build, and not as impactful as others make it out to be.

Voters first said yes to light rail back in 1996, with the $3.9 billion Sound Move initiative, which also created Sound Transit as a regional authority. Like ST3, the package offered a mix of light rail, bus and commuter rail services. But the big-ticket item was a $1.7 billion light rail system running from the University of Washington to SeaTac Airport, expected to be completed within 10 years. Creating an entirely new transportation system in Seattle promised both big risks and rewards. It delivered both.

Early on in the construction of Link Light Rail, it appeared Sound Transit may collapse completely, and the light rail plan along with it. The cost of the project quickly began to balloon — the Associated Press reported in 2001 that the project was already $1 billion over budget, and no rail had even been laid down. The cost overruns led federal officials to withhold large grants, further imperiling the plan’s finances. A series of executives resigned from the agency, and in 2001 new CEO Joni Earl announced that the light rail line would only go 2/3s of the promised length — stopping at Westlake rather than UW; would cost more; and would take longer to complete. Not a good way to introduce taxpayers to a new, multibillion-dollar agency.

And yet, with all that, voters within the designated Sound Transit taxing district continued to respond to the idea of a light rail system in the region. In 2008, before the initial expanse of light rail had even been completed, voters approved ST2, which included 36 miles of new light rail track.

That vote marked the beginning of brighter days for Sound Transit, and in particular its light rail system. In 2009, the light rail from Westlake to SeaTac finally opened; also, in the mid-aughts, the federal government restored the hundreds of millions of dollars in funding it had previously withheld, allowing Sound Transit to move forward with its plan to bring light rail to Capitol Hill and UW under the auspices of the 1996 Sound Move measure. While critics long groused that light rail ridership has not lived up to what was promised, with the UW-SeaTac line finally complete, ridership has exploded — up 77 percent in summer 2016 compared to summer 2015 — and is far exceeding forecasts.

It’s not hard to understand why the public has responded to the new line. People have attested to literally crying as they commuted from the U District to downtown in eight minutes after years of seeing trips to the city center become more and more impossible due to surface street-traffic snarls. Light rail advocates hope that Everett, Eastside, and Tacoma commuters will imagine the same joyous escape from the freeway in their own lives and approve a plan that would connect them to the system (though, to be clear, trips from out of Seattle promise to be longer than eight minutes; the Tacoma Dome-to-downtown Seattle trip is pegged at 70 minutes).

There’s also evidence that Sound Transit is becoming better at predicting how expensive light rail will be to build, and how long it will take to build it. Mike Lindblom at The Seattle Times recently calculated the total cost overruns of the 1996 ballot measure, and arrived at about 86 percent. Not good. However, in applying for federal grants to finish the Westlake to UW line, the agency was required to complete a new budget and timeline; it beat both.

And yet the early history of light rail will provide critics with a ready — and legitimate — argument against the system: its ability to lock the region into wildly expensive transit systems. Once you start laying track, it’s very difficult to scrap the plan altogether.

Still, if you’re one of those people crying on your commute to downtown, you probably don’t care.

— Daniel Person: 206-467-4381; dperson@seattleweekly.com


Talk to us

Please share your story tips by emailing editor@seattleweekly.com.

Jose Trujillo / Seattle Weekly                                Source: Sound Transit

Jose Trujillo / Seattle Weekly Source: Sound Transit

More in News & Comment

Photo of promotional recruitment banner used by Auburn Police Department at Petpalooza. The banner features Auburn Police Officer Jeff Nelson, who is awaiting trial for the 2019 murder and assault of Jesse Sarey. Photo courtesy of Jeff Trimble
Auburn police use photo of embattled officer on recruitment banner

Families of people killed by Jeffrey Nelson, who’s awaiting trial for murder, speak out over use of his photo at Petpalooza.

T
Use your King County library card to explore the outdoors

KCLS cardholders can check out a Discover Pass for two weeks to explore public lands.

Monkeypox virus. Photo courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control.
King County identifies first presumptive monkeypox case

The illness is not as easily transmitted compared to COVID-19, according to health officer.

This screenshot from Auburn Police Department bodycam footage shows an officer about to fire his weapon and kill dog on May 13, 2022.
Auburn police shoot dog, and owner claims it wasn’t justified

See videos of attack as well as bodycam footage of officer firing at dog.

File photo.
King County Council approves creation of Cannabis Safety Taskforce amid rash of dispensary robberies

The multi-agency task force will cooperate to find ways to improve safety in the cash-only industry.

Screenshot from ORCA website
New ORCA system launches for regional transit across the Puget Sound

Overhaul includes new website, mobile application and digital business account manager.

Judged by XII: A King County Local Dive podcast. The hands shown here belong to Auburn Police Officer Jeffrey Nelson, who has been charged with homicide in the 2019 death of Jesse Sarey.
JUDGED BY XII (Episode 4): Foster mom wants accountability in Auburn cop’s upcoming murder trial

Special podcast series explores Auburn Police Officer Jeffrey Nelson’s role in the death of Jesse Sarey.

Diane Renee Erdmann and Bernard Ross Hansen. Photos courtesy of FBI
FBI arrests Auburn couple after 11-day manhunt

The couple was previously convicted for fraud and skipped sentencing on April 29.

Screenshot from Barnes and Noble website
Cover art of books that KSD Librarian Gavin Downing says have been under fire: “Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts),” by Lev A.C. Rosen, “If I Was Your Girl,” by Meredith Russo, and “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” by George Matthew Johnson.
Kent middle school librarian wins intellectual freedom award

Gavin Downing refused to keep ‘silence in the library’ amid attempted book banning and censorship.

t
Kent elementary school teacher accused of using racist language toward student

River Ridge Elementary instructor placed on administrative leave by Kent School District.

FILE PHOTO: King County Sheriff’s Office deputies.
Dozens of King County Sheriff’s Office employees left jobs instead of getting vaccinated

This added on to the existing number of vacancies in the department.