There are those who believe the debate over light rail in Seattle began in November, 1851 with the landing of the Denny party at Alki. Seattle Mayor Bertha Knight Landes (1926 – 1928) created a committee of businessmen to  study rapid transit. However, most point to the defeat of the 1968 and 1970 Forward Thrust bond issues as the time when mass transit became political road-kill for a generation. Seattle’s federal match went to Atlanta to build MARTA.

How far we have come. Since 2009 thirteen stations have served thousands of passengers every day (currently over 36,000 boardings a day), and we’re just getting started!  This week we celebrate the completion of stations on Capitol Hill and Husky Stadium, and soon, South 200th. This second round of station openings is a game changer. A person on Capitol Hill will be able to get to the University or Downtown in five minutes by light rail! A UW student can live in Des Moines and get to the University on LINK.

As the Sound Move package essentially completes its mission this year, I’d like to share one perspective on the prickly history of our region’s debate, its starts and stops, and the challenge of building consensus on our path to light rail.

bassett_lr_planning4I got involved in 1988, co-sponsoring an advisory ballot asking King County voters whether to build a light rail system to open in 2000. Nearly 70% said yes and it broke the political logjam.

After several more years of planning and the creation of the Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority in 1993, the first vote to fund Mass Transit in 25 years was scheduled for a March 14, 1995 special election. In addition to Commuter Rail, the RTA plan contained a surface light rail system connecting Tacoma to Seattle, north to Lynnwood and east across Lake Washington on I-90 to Bellevue and Redmond.

That measure went down to defeat and history repeated itself – mass transit once again was treated by many politicians in Olympia and the region as political road kill.

Despite a close outcome, the votes were not evenly distributed. Seattle overwhelmingly passed the measure – but the rest of King, Pierce and Snohomish Counties voted no. Some say that Prohibition would have polled better than the RTA did in Everett. Politically it was necessary to show broad support, not just from a Seattle-dominated electorate.

Critics often bemoan the absence of leadership in our civic affairs, but our regional leaders responded to the defeat of the first RTA plan with creativity and courage.

rta02In the end the “Sound Move” plan was scaled back to a Light Rail line from the UW to SeaTac. Added were regional bus lines, park and ride lots, HOV access ramps and a concept called “sub-area equity”. The election was set for November 5, 1996.

This time voters in all three counties approved the plan. At last it looked like smooth sailing for a Metro Seattle mass transit system!

It turned out the challenges of actually building a system were far greater than anyone had imagined and at one point, in 2000 – 2001, the project almost imploded. But the members of the Sound Transit Board persevered and hired an outstanding CEO in Joni Earl.

As the new Seattle Mayor in 2002, I gathered all the City staff working on the light rail project and told them our job was to team with Sound Transit to make sure the system got built. This was a relief to many staff who really did not know if the previous City Administration supported or opposed building it. We finally broke ground on November 8, 2003 ending once and for all the debate over whether to build light rail mass transit.

It has been an amazing adventure. While certainly not for the faint of heart, it was an incredible honor to work with the elected officials on the ST Board, the staff and particularly the interested citizens who have engaged, often passionately, in this saga. And never dull! In this last quarter-century we have come a long way and we have much work to accomplish in the next few years. I do wish the voters had approved the Forward Thrust plan in 1968, but what a ride our generation would have missed!

Greg Nickels is a former Mayor of Seattle, King County Councilmember, and Sound Transit Board Chair. He is a founding father of Sound Transit, and was perhaps the single most important figure in the passage of Sound Transit 2. He currently serves on the Transportation Choices Coalition Board.

51 Replies to “Light Rail: A Long and Winding Road”

  1. Now let’s get the rest going and not stop until you can get from Everett to Tacoma, a full loop around Lake Washington, and east to west between Burien and Renton as well as Ballard and the UW. Maybe we’ll even be able to do crazy things in the future like take a train from our biggest city right into the middle of our state capitol!

      1. As long as the transfers are all on the same Orca/billing and all in the same station! West Seattle to Tukwila/Airport onward to Olympia!

      2. Standard gauge pair of steel rails please! Saves a lot of “customization” expense which otherwise bloats the cost of vehicles, repairs, etc. As long as that’s standard, quite a lot of variation can be allowed for in other things.

      3. Nathanel: while riding MAX west of Beaverton, I thought I saw where the rest of the rail system connects directly with MAX, so it seems possible to tow light rail over the regular rail network for delivery. I’m probably completely wrong, but why else would the tracks connect? I was going to attach the Google Maps link to demonstrate my point, but it appears the rail connection has now been abandoned.

      4. It’s disused right now, but not as bad as it looks.

        MAX cars arrive on flat cars usually. When they arrive at this spot, there is a trmporarh ramp that gets installed, and instead of a switch to the main line on MAX there is an insert that makes the connection without any interruption in the MAX line. That way, there’s no interruption of the actual track and seitch frog maintenance for a connection only used on a very occasional basis.

        As far as compatibility goes, though, there are situations where temporal separation allows a freight railroad that only sees occasional freight traffic to become a light rail line for passenger service at other times. New Jersey Transit RiverLINE is set up to be that way every day.

        In the Puget Sound area, such lines as the occasional freight line up the hill to Boeing from Tukwila could be done that way if it proves desirable.

      5. We could possibly interrupt the line for a delivery if it were say less than once a week. It would be akin to a 520 bridge opening.

  2. Generations of future transit riders should thank Greg Nickels for the hard work he did coordinating the political movement behind Sound Transit and shepherding the project through the early, dark days. Finally overcoming the inertia of the do-nothing forces that fought ST is one of the milestone achievements in the history of Puget Sound region.

  3. With all that work on mass transit, it’s amazing you found the time to give our Sonics away. Well done.

    1. Yes, Nickels certainly was fleeced by the Okies and I bet he wishes he’d bought another snow plow or two, but the fact remains that he was the guiding force behind the implementation of ST light rail. The alignment isn’t perfect but getting a light rail line established was a huge accomplishment and let’s hope that the “lessons learned” in the early 2000s can be used to create a better future system.

      1. And one of those Okies who conspired to still the Sonics just got caught in a little hanky panky and took the easy way out. Cosmic karma.

    2. If one of our many richy rich locals had stepped up to buy the Sonics when Schultz put them up for sale, they’d still be here and we would be at the mercy of the NBA begging them to give us a team.

  4. Greg was also part of the group who killed the monorail. Please stop putting yourself on a pedestal. You were not any more important than the individual who voted yes for light rail back in the day. You were not any great mayor to speak of and you rolled over for any developer who wanted to tear down Seattle history.

    1. The monorail killed itself with spades of incompetence. Thank gawd that when it died it didn’t damage transit or Seattle’s reputation anymore than it did.

      And I celebrate what Mayor Nickels accomplished. He played a very key part in getting the original Sound Move passed. And if it wasn’t for him we would never have recovered from the R+T defeat and passed ST2.

      Today is a day we should all be thankful for Mayor Nickels and Sen Murrey. And it pains me to say it, but we should also be very thankful to Joni Earl. She didn’t Coug-it, and this Dawg thanks her too.

      1. Yes, but I can’t help but feel like we just graduated from college with terrible grades. On the one hand, congratulations! What an accomplishment! Your prospects are certainly brighter than before you were a college graduate.

        On the other hand, if we had just worked a little harder to keep that GPA up, our future could have been a lot brighter.

        Today is certainly worth celebrating, but there will forever be an asterisk next to Link.

      2. The monorail proposal was from 15th Ave NW in Ballard to Interbay, Seattle Center East, replacing the historic monorail to Westlake, 2nd Avenue, West Seattle Junction, to Morgan Junction. There was also a long-term plan of six or seven lines all within Seattle. Monorails were a custom product so hey couldn’t use off-the-shelf equiment; so two (or four?) companies offered proprietary systems. All but one company dropped out. Its top speed was 35 mph so it would have been somewhat slow. It passed the ballot and survived three attempts to kill it, by only a few votes. The opponents didn’t want expensive trains (buses only), or proprietary trains (light rail only), and the biggest objectors were 2nd Avenue businesses who didn’t want it in front of their windows or taking up their parking spaces. Its main revenue source was a variable-rate MVET (annual car ownership tax), variable meaning that expensive cars had a higher tarrif. Its financing was weak enough that it wouldn’t accept PugetPass: if you had to transfer to a bus you would have had to pay two fares. That in my mind was a big problem because it would discourage ridership.

        Then around 2000, Tim Eyman’s Initiative 695 gutted MVETs statewide, replacing them with a flat rate $20 or $30 (Seattle’s aggregate total was around $150 or $200). That knocked the monorail’s main funding source out from uinder it. It hobbled along with an even weaker financing plan, and funds got so limited that half the line was truncated (I’m not sure if it was north or south) and part of it was reduced to single-track (thus limiting potential frequency to 15 or 20 minutes). A fifth monorail referendum was scheduled, and anti-monorail downtown businesses came out with an ad spinning the financing in a scary light: something like $10 billion including all future interest payments. That’s not how other projects are estimated so it was misleading. But it was the final nail in the coffin and the fifth vote failed, and the monorail authority was liquidated. (Although unused tax authority remains, for fixed-guideway trains that’s “not light rail”.)

        I supported the monorail throughout because the existing US light rail systems were mostly surface including downtown (Portland, San Diego, San Jose, Sacramento,,,) and I wanted grade-separated speed. I was afraid Sound Transit’s light rail would turn out like that. (The original proposal was surface from Mt Baker to SeaTac, and the earliest drafts went on the I-5 express lanes or Eastlake rather than having Broadway and University Way stations.) But after the monorail was defeated and Link turned out more grade-separated than I feared, and MLK turned out not so bad after the first year (when they improved signal priority), I now feel the monorail was a mistake and I shouldn’t have supported it — it’s better to have a common citywide technology for easier transfers and sharing equipment.

      3. By the way, Initiative 695 was found unconstitutional, but the legislature was so afraid of anti-tax voters that it imposed the same terms legislatively.

      4. Monorail now is as fast as Light Rail (within 5 mph), holds more standing passengers, forces grade separation and is still cheaper to put in. If someone proposes it we’d all vote it down anyway. Sometimes that’s just the way it is. We could have some great new technology out there and we’d still vote for antiquated light rail. Sometimes that’s just the way things are.

        When you aim for the stars and miss you get the moon. When you aim for the moon and miss you get Kansas. We get Kansas.

        Still Light Rail is better than buses by a long shot. If you ever live in a city with reel headways though it’s still sort of laughable.

      5. Light rail is not antiquated, it’s a proven powerhouse, and its standardization makes for interchangeable parts from multiple vendors, and it can be converted later to most other rail technologies if desired. Cities all over Germany have it, including small cities the size of Bellevue and Spokane. All the real and alleged problems with Link come down to how we chose to implement it (with surface segments) and where we chose to deploy it (perhaps beyond the kind of alignments it’s most competitive for).

      1. There were those in seattle who disposed Nickels for actually using the power of the strong mayor form of government – called it Chicago politics if I remember right. But I liked it because he actually got things done. NIckels is my favorite mayor so far.

        Joel Horn on the other hand? What has he ever accomplished? And I do mean EVER

      2. I-695 had absolutely no effect on the monorail. In fact, it probably even aided the monorail. By wiping out the state’s high MVET, the decrease to $30 car-tabs (as enacted by lawmakers) created “space” that the Seattle Monorail Project claimed, where city drivers could afford to pay a monorail tax, now that the state car-tab tax was virtually eliminated in 2001. Without I-695, the city drivers would have still paid 2.2% MVET to the state and would have been unable to shoulder another 1.4% for the monorail.

      3. It’s my understanding that the monorail lost most of its revenue with 695. If not, how did it lose most of its revenue?

  5. I have been in Seattle since the original,advisory vote and have followed this saga every step of the way. But where do I find myself today? San Francisco watching from afar.

    After all the trials and tribulations, I will miss the big event, but I do hope to ride tomorrow. Hopefully the Yeti Bar will be open early.

    Incidently, I did have a chance to ride the cable cars down here (playing a bit of tour guide for another out-of-towner). I do so wish we had the foresight of San Fran and didn’t tear all of our cable cars out. They saved a sampling of theirs, have a great vintage trolley line that actually works as transit, have BART, and tore down their viaduct long ago.

    Time to play catchup.

    1. We sold our cable cars to San Francisco, so you’re riding one of its descendants.

    2. SF had a little help tearing down the viaduct from Mother Nature. The 42 people who lost their lives on the Oakland viaduct would probably have preferred it had been torn down on a more managed timescale.

      Wonder how many will lose their lives on SR99.

  6. I don’t mean to rain on the Mayors parade this morning, as the opening of Link to UW is a game changer.
    Thank you Greg for all your years of work on all those committees and 1,000’s of meetings over the last 28 years.
    Time will tell how much of a game changer it will be for the masses, but certainly for many it will be a great alternative to I-5.
    The advisory ballot in 1988 was in King County only, and should have stayed there without the complications of bringing in two more counties to broaden the tax base. That has led to countless bad compromises in rail over the years along with wasteful spending priorities to satisfy subarea equity.
    So, let the party start and we’ll all sober up another day.

  7. Capitol Hill Seattle has a link to a KOMO TV documentary from 1985 about King County transit and urban planning. The 25 minute video brings up a lot of issues, some of which we still talk about, so I’d recommend watching the whole thing. You’ll see the precursors to the King County/Metro merger and the Puget Sound Regional Council under different names, 520’s toll booths, etc.

    And a discussion of urban distribution models: all centralized in inner Seattle, radial development (spokes from the center), north-south development (three linear north-south urbanizations separated by Lakes Washington and Sammamish, and “metro towns” (city nodes each surrounded by open space). It says what we got is a variation of metro towns, although there’s a lot of single-family sprawl between them that isn’t in the model. But all the towns are in King County, because the joining of the King, Pierce, and Snohomish (north of Lynnwood) commuter markets didn’t really become big until the 1990s. So in response to Mic’s statement, yes, it may have been better to focus on a King County system, but that was easier to do in 1985 than in 1995 or 2005. (And of course, it was the legislature that forced us to build jointly with Pierce and Snohomish.)

    The most interesting part is an early plan for the downtown Seattle transit tunnel. It was planned jointly with the I-90 completion, specifically reserving the center lanes of I-90 for transit (buses now and some kind of trains later), and envisioned dedicated transit lanes coming from I-90, into the DSTT, north to Seattle Center, and east around Mercer to I-5. It got some criticism for being focused on Eastside commuters, but it was intended to later include West Seattle, Ballard, and Eastiake (?) routes. So even then there was a vision of RossB’s (?) WSTT. I don’t know how the DSTT ultimately got reconfigured from Seattle Center to Convention Place; I always thought it should go to the Center to support the Ballard and Aurora routes and Belltown, but I didn’t know that was officially proposed.

    Gotta go now, but the video also discusses the pros/cons of heavy rail (especially BART), buses, PRT, and vague future technologies.

    1. Thanks for the ’85 documentary on urban planning and transportation. A key component was the DSTT from Sodo to Seattle Center, with branches to Ballard, W.Seattle and other points of the compass. In just 30 short years it is now obsolete – full of trains and buses – and we are talking about digging more of them in addition to the big hole just next to it – as they mused about tearing down the viaduct.

    2. That’s probably where it became impractical. I saw early sketches of real-time signs with several West Seattle and Burien routes along with the usual. Given how full the DSTT was just before Link, and throwing out the peak-only routes which should have never been in the tunnel, you can still only fit a limited number of frequent routes. The I-5 vision probably meant Northgate and Lynnwood someday: but you can’t fully serve the demand to those areas along with all the other routes, not without a train’s capacity. So the preliminary vision for how many downtown buses the DSTT would absorb was probably unrealistic.

  8. As someone who grew up with DC’s Metro, I llok at today as the functional equivalent of connecting Dupont Circle with George Washington University. It’s great, but we are still at least 30 years behind DC, and we still haven’t connected Ballard and Fremont (sort of like Rosslyn, Courthouse Metro) and it is not looking likely we will connect both (Constantine recently quoted on King5 as studying rather than building Ballard to UW). sigh

    1. Interestingly, UW Station is kind of like Scott Road in Vancouver: it just pokes its nose east of the Fraser River, before the Whalley/King George extension. That’s akin to UW Station vs the rest of North Link. It’s enough to singnificantly improve north Seattle’s mobility because at least you don’t have to compete with cars across the bridges and approaching downtown, but it’s still only a fraction of the benefit North Link will bring.

      Also interesting, downtown Surrey was built up in conjunction with the extension — a comparison would be a semi-rural Eastside and building East Link and a Northgate-like neighborhood to concentrate development. If only we could be that smart with land use here.

    2. Hopefully we don’t also mimic DC Metro in letting the system deteriorate over 40 years to point of somewhat frequent fires/crashes and emergency system-wide shutdowns. Or its cousin BART with its Twitter account having to tell it like it is to the public.

      1. DC Metro and BART are both children of the Urban Mass Transportation Administration, during a short-lived pro-subway era in the late 1960s which huge amounts of money was put into a short list of systems. The downside was that the people involved attempted to reinvent the wheel, ignoring everything which had been learned about running a railroad in the last 140 years. BART got the worst of it, being built with Indian broad gauge and flat wheels for no particular reason, but both it and DC Metro were also saddled with a poorly-designed non-failsafe signal system. BART patched up the signal system to be safer in the 1970s and DC never copied the fix. Other UMTA-era systems include Atlanta’s MARTA (as you know, they got Seattle’s money), and the stupid Peoplemovers in Detroit, Jacksonville, and Miami.

        All the UMTA systems were promptly neglected when Reagan took office, and have been neglected ever since. In some ways the situation of the “modern” systems built in the subsequent era of construction is better: when Calgary, Edmonton, and San Diego built their systems they did so with essentially no national support. As such they were much more cautious about cost and maintainability, and developed strong local backing and funding; this has helped keep those systems maintained.

        The pre-1960s “heritage” systems have even more decay than the UMTA-era systems, but the decay became obvious and problematic by the 1970s, and so fixing it has been *the priority* since then. New Orleans and the Newark City Subway basically did manage to catch up, and San Francisco Muni is close. CTA (Chicago) is getting close to state of good repair now, and so is Metra (Chicago) and South Shore Line (Chicago). SEPTA (Philadelphia) just got steady funding allowing it to aim for state of good repair *last year*. MBTA (Boston) has made a lot of progress over the decades but it’s still backlogged with no plan or funding to get out of the backlog. The backlogs are even worse for NYC (Subway, Staten Island Rapid Transit, LIRR, Metro-North), PATH, NJT Rail, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Caltrain in San Francisco, and of course Amtrak.

        Anyway, the maintenance backlogs on those systems are things of which people have been aware for 40 years — but it’s only recently that the maintenance backlogs on the UMTA-era systems have come to public awareness.

      2. Correction: Baltimore Subway is also UMTA-era. Which explains why it manages to totally misconnect with MARC, which is “heritage”. The UMTA-era systems really did sneer at everything which had gone before them, which turned out to b kind of stupid.

  9. Would love to see the parking lot between Husky Stadium and the Montlake Cut redeveloped with mixed use and housing to bring a “there” there, capitalize on the high speed high frequency travel of Link and this valuable piece of infrastructure in this traffic choked and housing starved region. Plus its right on the water, this would be so highly desirable on top of 8 min travel times to Downtown. I would guess there would probably be at least 8 blocks worth of development there.

    UBC and SFU in Vancouver have both done many spectacular mixed use projects on their campus… Wesbrook Village and UniverCity are the big ones. UW should really step up to the plate especially for forcing the station so far out of the way.

    1. “UW should really step up to the plate especially for forcing the station so far out of the way.”

      +1, that parking lot next to the stadium is probably the highest valued unused land in Seattle right now

    2. The land east of Montlake Blvd was a former toxic waste dump, so building anything except parking lots and fields and stadiums would trigger expensive cleanup.

      1. Shouldn’t be a problem. Much dense development occurs on cleaned up brownfields including the lauded gold standard, the Hoyt Street Yards of the Pearl District. So many infill projects in Seattle are on former gas station sites (60 years ago they sold gas on almost every street corner, just look at any old photo or Sanborn Insurance map).

        The lack of anything at UW station just seems so apparent to me, its a 10 minute walk to anything except Husky Stadium (great for all 8 games a year) and the UW Medical Center (pretty much employees and patients only). The fact that there isn’t anything at this station really takes away from the ~4 mins to Capitol Hill and ~6-8 mins to Downtown when you then need another 10 minute walk, bike or bus ride to get to anything.

    3. UW’s master plan does have quite a bit of development on the boards, not only south of Husky Stadium but north of the IMA in lot E1 (the big lot between there and U Village). The development there is mostly right along Montlake.

      Perhaps the City can do everyone a favor and prioritize Montlake for a rebuild with transit lanes.

  10. My memory is that the 1995 proposal was more of a metro type system than a light rail system. This made it more expensive, which caused its defeat.

    Also my memory is that the 1996 plan was to go all the way to Northgate, which also proved too expensive after inflation and costs mounted. Fortunately they had put in the legal language so that they could cut back under Joni Earl, unlike the legal language adapted by the monorail.

    1. Of course the monorail put that language in to distinguish itself from Sound Transit and it’s repeated backsliding. It’s not like they were just stupid. Sound transit had left many voters jaded.

    2. I don’t remember the 1995 technology being different, and I can’t see ST changing technology in one year. It would take six months worth of studies just to determine the feasability and cost, and then just three months to evaluate it and make changes to the system plan before the ballot language deadline.

    3. The most likely change would be low-floor trains. Those were not on the horizon when the DSTT was built, but they were running in Germany by the mid 1990s and starting to influence decisions in the US. It’s possible that the low-floor decision came between the votes, although I assume it was probably earlier.

    4. If you remember, the first Sound Move vote in 1995 was the first time there was ever a price tag put on any major transportation project in a long time.

      We were mostly living (highway spending, primarily) on the largesse of the Federal government via the influence of Scoop and Maggie.

      (For those more recent to the area, that’s Senators Henry M. Jackson and Warren Magnuson)

  11. Yes very good, you solved the short trip problem with rails thou at 40+ minutes from SeaTac to downtown is a bit of a drag, how many people walk out of the airport and jump on the train to get downtown? Vs some other mode of transport?. How long will the same trip from SeaTac to Tacoma take, it is after all Seattle Tacoma International Airport..

    Now solve the long commute to and from affordable locations in a short time problem with rails, Sounder south line has you started already, now improve on it and the last mile bus rides and you might end up with something you can brag about internationally.

    1. The saying going around UW, “45 minutes to the airport”, sounds pretty good. That’s less than an hour, which gets people’s attention.

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