by GREG NICKELS, Mayor of Seattle and Chair of the Sound Transit Board
After the passage of Sound Move on November 5, 1996 it was time to get to work. The RTA needed to ramp up from a 22 person planning staff to an entity capable of building a multi-billion dollar capital program and operating multiple modes of transit service. This is a step virtually every new transit agency struggles with and leads to a phenomenon known as “growing pains”!
The Board began to make dozens of decisions (PDF), from rebranding the agency as “Sound Transit” to vehicle purchases to route decisions. Environmental Impact Statements were begun, policies were developed, fares with other transit agencies were “integrated”, ground was broken and hearings were held.
In September 1997 the first Regional Express bus service began, in June 1998 I led the Board’s effort to identify Union Station as Sound Transit’s permanent headquarters and Sounder commuter rail between Tacoma and Seattle debuted in September, 2000. Tacoma’s Link streetcar began service in August, 2003.
Due to its size, federal funding and all new right-of-way; the most complicated aspect of the program was Link Light Rail. A very difficult period began toward the end of 2000 as tensions mounted and the Board ordered a halt to negotiations over a contract to build a very long, deep light rail tunnel under Portage Bay. The Board was concerned that the cost and risk of the proposed contract was unacceptably high and a reassessment was in order. This led to staff changes (Joni Earl became Executive Director) and eventually a reengineering of the project (splitting it into the initial Airport segment and the University segment extension) to reduce the risks.
Extraordinary political drama ensued including the last minute signing of a Full Funding Grant Agreement (FFGA) on the final evening of the Clinton administration and light rail becoming the focus of the very close 2001 Seattle Mayor’s race. But the Board persevered, Joni restored confidence in the agency and eventually the project was back on track. In fact in February, 2003 Link’s initial segment received the highest rating of any project in the nation from the Federal Transit Administration. This was repeated recently with the University Link extension. Ground was finally broken for the initial Link light rail segment on November 8, 2003.