by GREG NICKELS, Mayor of Seattle and Chair of the Sound Transit Board


With about three months to go before it opens, this is the second installment of my recollections on the long road travelled to build our Sound Transit Light Rail line.

After the November 1988 Advisory Ballot victory, it became clear that the public (at least 70% of them) were far ahead of the politicians in envisioning light rail mass transit. The issue was taken up in the Metro Council (in its Planning Committee). Metro, then known as “Seattle Metro”, was a separate government until 1993. Its federated Council included a variety of local elected and appointed officials who oversaw the bus and wastewater treatment systems in King County.

Initially the issue was popular with Democrats and Republicans on the Metro Council. Republicans like Bruce Laing, Lois North and Paul Barden (along with local officials like Seattle Councilman Paul Kraabel and Mercer Island Mayor Fred Jarrett) joined Democrats Cynthia Sullivan and me in advocating for mass transit (some Eastside elected officials were reluctant to use the words “Light” and “Rail” in the same sentence even after the vote). About this time the idea of using Burlington Northern tracks for commuter rail was gaining traction as well.

It became clear fairly early that the planning needed to expand beyond just King County.

Fortunately there also were champions in the legislature like House Transportation Chair Ruth Fisher (and later Representative Ed Murray). State funding was secured to study the concept (I’m not kidding, State funding). In 1990 a body called the Joint Regional Policy Committee (I was a member of the JRPC) was established to expand the work from King County to Pierce and Snohomish and the legislation included local taxing options to pay for building a system.  Between August of 1990 and July of 1993, a $13.2 billion Regional Transit Plan was developed and legislation authorizing creation of a Regional Transit Authority was passed in Olympia. In July of 1993, the three County Councils voted to join the Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority to advance the plan. And thus Sound Transit was born.

The mayor’s previous post: Counting Down to Link

25 Replies to “Guest Post Series: Light Rail’s Beginnings”

  1. 1993 doesn’t seem like that long ago (I was in college!), but it’s obviously a different time now. The state wanted to make it illegal to give Sound Transit any state funds.

    What happened to that law? Bloggers?

  2. Maybe I’m weird but I thought the early 90s were a really exciting time. You could see the local officials and planning staffs checking out the light rail ideas and coming out thumbs-up. When light rail kept measuring up using our own yardsticks, I knew it was a question of when, not if.

  3. They were exciting times, when regional rail was promised to get people out of their cars, reduce congestion, and get from point A to point B in quick fashion. Now we have a slow, meandering multi-billion dollar bus system on rails. Sad.

    1. Two nights ago I was caught in traffic on the way to the airport from downtown. I probably would have saved 10-15 minutes on Link, and furthermore, I wouldn’t have had to pad my schedule for congestion, so I’d really have saved more like 30 minutes.

      That gets people out of cars. You have a belief that it will not, but reality does not comply with beliefs.

    2. I’d agree that some of the proposed routes on East Link favored by our politicians (how much did those favors cost?) are a milk run and station density is way out of whack. And there’s still time to change that. But Downtown to UW in less than 10 minutes with a single stop on Capital Hill; how much better does it get going from A to B until they develop transporter technology? Downtown to the airport could be faster but there’s not enough people that want to go back and forth to the airport or even from Southcenter to downtown. The route up MLK seems to be a pretty good people mover and if it reinvigorates a part of town that has seen it’s share of neglect then so much the better. Maybe one or two stops could have been left out and better served by a streetcar loop but it’s not awful. It would have been nice if it actually connected Boeing Field with Seatac but that likely would have cost too much to justify given current demand and should we see enough of an increase in passenger service in and out of Boeing Field then they can always build a system like Seatac has had for years to connect it’s satellite terminals.

  4. Agreed. With Central Link we get a system that ties the largest employment density area in the state (downtown Seattle) to the second highest transit ridership area in the state (the RV). And soon U-Link will tie those to areas to the highest transit ridership area in the state (the UW). You can’t get much better than that.

    Going to the airport isn’t nearly as important as connecting those three areas, and C-Link connects those 3 areas very well.

    1. Going to the airport I think really is a bonus that will help Seattle’s competitiveness in a global economy. It’s especially important to a region so heavily dependent on trade, commercial airplanes and is home to the largest software company in the world. SEA is a bonus because it’s part of a north south spine but look at how long it took San Francisco to get rail to SFO.

    2. I think connecting to the airport is important for any mass transit system, but getting their as fast as possible just can’t be a priority over serving major transit-use areas. When people consider transit use for their daily commute, they will consider the time it will take them precisely vs. other options. Whereas, with trips taken only occassionaly, such as to the airport, people will be more willing to sacrifice a little time in exchange for convienance. I don’t think the fact that Link may take a little longer to get to the airport than riding the bus or driving (maybe, during off-peak times) will change the ridership for this usage greatly, than if it got there faster.

    3. The airport Link is “nice” because it’ll introduce lot of people who otherwise won’t really ride transit to the train. This is good politically because everyone will have some experience with the train and may be more likely to vote “yes” for future expansion. Bernie makes good points, and I’d like to point out that it’ll help our convention center remain competitive. But who knows how useful it is from more quantitative metrics. U-Link, though, is huge and may redefine our urban core.

  5. it’ll help our convention center remain competitive.

    Certainly puts it in a much better position relative to Maydenbauer; a point I hope resonates with the Bellevue City Council when they consider the impact Eastside Rail could have should they, as the Port would like to see be able to extend to SEA.

  6. Nickels writes: “It became clear fairly early that the planning needed to expand beyond just King County”.

    This was an early strategic mistake. King County itself is regional is size: twice as large as the three counties of Tri Met.

    Representative Fisher, House Tranportation Chair, was from north Tacoma.

    1. I don’t know about that. South Sounder, which is a success, never would have worked without Pierce. Snohomish doesn’t add a whole lot for me, I can’t imagine taking link past Northgate ever: I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been north of northgate on I-5 and wasn’t on my way to Vancouver.

      That’s one reason I’m more excited about rapid ride and Swift than Link in Snohomish.

  7. Just had to report. I was chatting yesterday with a visiting consultant from a ‘real’ city (one that has rail transit) and mentioned that Light Rail is opening. He asked where it goes, and I said kinda snarkily, ‘The airport.’ He was estatic. Seems his downtown hotel doesn’t have a van or anything, and the Metro does not leave as early in the morning as he needs in order to catch his flight. While I’m not so into supporting commuting by airplane, it was pretty neat to see him all jazzed.

    Today, I had a reason to drive to Tukwila and took MLK for the first time this year. They were testing the trains!! I kept slowing down and speeding up to drive beside various trains, waving to the drivers like an idiot!

  8. This question came up in the First Hill Streetcar thread and I’ll pose it directly to Mayor Nickels- what do we need to do to get the Waterfront Trolley back?

    Yes, I know this is OT, but it’s time for civil disobedience.

    Build a barn? Out where I live people order those by mail and put them up over a weekend. Seriously, the line made money, and with a little extension could run from the cruise ship terminal at Pier 90 to Chinatown. I’ve even heard that the Port offered space for a barn a mile north of Pier 70.

    IMHO this is something that should get done.

    1. I think it should be “rebuilt” or put back into service after the Viaduct is removed, because it’ll certainly be shut down once that process begins anyway.

      1. Not necessarily. I was working for Virginia Mason when they built the tower between the old Doctor’s Hospital and the main VM hospital. I don’t think at any point they went outside the footprint of the building. It was quite incredible to watch- everything brought in to the site and hoisted- maybe they closed a sidewalk or two for a little while, but a modern contractor will operate in very tight limits.

    2. How about storing them inside Union Station? There’s a great big hall in there that’s not being used for much of anything. Just extend the tracks across Jackson street, put in some bigger doors, and there you go. Instant streetcar barn!

    3. What kind of civil disobedience could you do to get to restart a line? Roll down the tracks with a pump-trolley, picking up whoever wanted a ride?

      1. Well, uh, actually, the civil disobedience I was referring to was going off-topic in a comments thread- something I hope I would never normally do.

        But, in general, keep pointing out to anybody and everybody how much sense it makes to connect the Interbay area, the cruise ships, the central waterfront, and the International District, not to mention the First Hill trolley and the First Avenue trolley. Modest extensions at both ends of the Waterfront trolley would make it a very useful route.

      2. First we’d need to jackhammer up all the frickin’ blacktop the paves over the tracks with!

  9. I hope that any further postings concerning the origins of Sound Transit might include reminders of the absolute attempts to stall it by the likes of Kemper Freeman, Rob McKenna, Emory Bundy and Jerry Schneider. Their shortsightedness and blatently self-centered obsification is precisely why a city with the densities of Belltown and Wallingford will open its first true rail transit after Phoenix and Houston.

    Even Lyle Lanley would blush.

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