Just before the ribbon-cutting

Ten years ago today, some 45,000 riders boarded Link light rail for the first time and celebrated a new era in Seattle’s transit history: the long-awaited start to a real rail transit system.

STB was there to cover every angle of the opening weekend (and the first days in revenue service), which are chronicled in loving detail with posts every few hours. There was number counting, a short postmortem, and plenty of photos and comments. There were also dozens of tweets on opening day, with thoughts ranging from porta-potty cleanliness to the fact that three-car trains were there to take passengers that day.

Oran’s video of the preview ride on July 17, 2009

For those of us who moved to the city in the post-Link era, or didn’t become transit evangelists until then (like myself), a quick primer is available on Wikipedia, thanks to some research from yours truly. A lot of work went into making Link a reality, no thanks to the Seattle process and the many struggles of ST in its infancy. The Gray Lady of New York also went over some of the history behind opening day, which received A-section treatment.

Also worth reading is the live thread from opening day from The Seattle Times, and this before-and-after series from ST’s in-house blog featuring a few of the agency’s employees and their families. It’s especially nice to have some statistical comparisons to the Seattle of 2009, which had 140,000 fewer people and dirt-cheap housing, in hindsight.

Share your Link memories, whether they be from 2009 or in the years since, with us!

60 Replies to “Happy 10th birthday, Link!”

  1. I thought that Link could not operate longer than two cars prior to U-Link (that is, to do so it would have to close the DSTT to buses and run trains in both directions on the same side) because the stub track under Pine street was only long enough for two cars. Maybe that was only during U-Link construction?

    1. “Java enabled phone” lol…

      Speaking of which, remember when you could use your phone for several days without charging it? Remember when you were charged for every text you sent/received? Pepperidge Farm remembers.

  2. Some commenters in the “First Revenue Day” post were talking about how the LED signs would get real-time arrival information about 2 months after opening. Haha, they only had to wait 117 more months for that!
    (Side question: did the “The next train –bound is arriving in 2 minutes” start about 2 months after opening?)

    1. I think the 2-minute announcement was there from the beginning. I don’t remember a time without it.

  3. As we reflect about 10 years ago, let’s envision Link’s reality in 2029….

    … we will have 38 or 39 (130th?) stations if I counted correctly, as opposed to 16 today …

    … we will have well more than 200K average weekday riders (230-240K by 2025 according to the TDP), as opposed to 75K today …

    … we will likely have only four-car trains on two lines, each running at six to eight minutes in each direction at peak separately or three to four minutes combined north of International District (or every five minutes where combined until after 10 pm) …

    … we will have witnessed overcrowding (possibly daily) in both trains and on elevators/ escalators/ stairs …

    … we will have been through multiple service and equipment disruptions …

    … although new projects will be under construction by then, the public will be more focused on any daily operational issues ….

    In other words, our ST2+ dream will be a wonderful reality — and possibly an operational nightmare. Meanwhile, many legacy Metro and CT routes replaced by feeding into Link.

      1. Since we are getting all nostalgic and weepy eyed over the incredible LR journey we have had the last 10 years, it might be fun to resurrect the old LR ridership charts.

        Those were sort of fun, and it would nice to see an update just for fun. Maybe plot only odd-numbered years to keep it simple. It would tell the story of where we were and where we are rather succinctly.

    1. Maybe by the time overcrowded trains are a problem, Seattle will allow more frequent trains on MLK.

      1. It won’t happen. It takes just under a minute for pedestrians to walk across MLK at ststions.

      2. I don’t think it will happen either. Frequencies need to allow enough time for pedestrians to cross, which takes nearly a minute, plus traffic signal combinations. And there’s also the fact that Link needs to be timed for both directions. It’s a lowest common denominator problem for sure. That’s why it shouldn’t have been built at-grade, but that’s where we are.

      3. It takes a minute for a pedestrian to cross, but you don’t think they can run the trains every five minutes? They could probably run the trains every three minutes and there would be plenty of time to cross.

        The six minute rule was put in place because SDOT felt that if they ran the trains more often, it would screw up cross traffic. Pedestrian crossing had nothing to do with it. It still has nothing to do with it. If they increase the frequency of the trains, you will have more traffic problems east-west, but Seattle could decide to just live with that.

      4. They could in theory, but trains would have to stop at signals more often. With a train arriving in one direction or the other every 2.5 minutes and signals every few blocks, to set up timing with sequential green lights for trains in both directions becomes a mathematical nightmare. Riders would see slowdowns in the RV and pedestrians would wait for a long time to get to Link.

        The promise of ST2 is actually to have trains every eight minutes (less frequent than the current six). Until the second tunnel opens, the combined line frequency will be governed by the combined line operations anyway. I guess ST could squeeze it back to six but that leaves little margin of delay at station loading and unloading at three minutes. So,, any thing more frequent than every six minutes (and maybe seven or eight minutes) won’t happen until the second tunnel opens in at least 2035 anyway.

      5. I think we all know the answer to what will actually cause more traffic issues: 400 people on a light rail train or the 400 road vehicles that will be there if the train isn’t.

        It may take a while for the city to wake up to this.

      6. With a train arriving in one direction or the other every 2.5 minutes and signals every few blocks, to set up timing with sequential green lights for trains in both directions becomes a mathematical nightmare.

        Sorry, I don’t buy it. I really don’t think there is anything magical about 6 minutes. It is hard to imagine that if the trains run every 5 minutes (a 20% increase in capacity) that it will make it impossible to cross. It just isn’t that much in terms of train traffic. Just consider a typical scenario:

        A train heading north goes by. You have a full five minutes before the next train arrive. But wait! A train will be heading south! Let’s assume worse case scenario, and assume that it will cross at exactly the wrong time — the midpoint. That means that it will cross 2.5 minutes the first train. Are you telling me you can’t cross the street in two and a half minutes? Give me a break.

        If the south train arrives sooner, it means you have a longer gap after that train goes by. If the south train arrives later, it means you have a longer gap before it arrives. No matter how you cut it, the worst case scenario is half the frequency of the trains. Even if the train go by every three minutes (which would double the capacity) you have 90 seconds (at worse) to cross the street. It really isn’t a problem.

        Oh, sure, there will be more times when you want to cross, think you will make it, but find that you have to wait little bit longer. On the other hand, folks that are already at the station will find their wait for the train is less.

        The only real tough part is exactly what SDOT feared — traffic could be a mess. To me, east-west traffic during rush hour is not a priority. Of course it sucks when you are trying to get to your obscure place and transit doesn’t work for you. Sorry, that’s just life in the big city. There are ways that such problems can be dealt with, including banning left turns, which make for shorter life cycles (Denny has banned left turns for years).

        It also sucks if buses like the 50 are delayed. But a little paint and that problem goes away.

        None of that may be necessary. A change from 6 to 5 (or even 4) could probably happen without any major work done. But if this really is an issue, then we should spend a little money making it easier for traffic to cross, instead of pie-in-the-sky, never-gonna-happen plans like a bypass.

      7. Sorry Ross, but in addition to crossing times there is also the advance time for each train, which adds at least another 30 seconds if not a minute for each train. Even if trains are not signaled in blocks like today, there will still need to be time in advance of each train that cross streets can’t go.

        As someone who has been unable to walk across MLK for three minutes today (with a train every three minutes in each direction), I really don’t think I would ever get a walk light to get to the platform if the trains were more frequent.

      8. My 7-year old waits for the school bus on Columbian Way a block west of MLK every morning. We have witnessed on numerous occasions the school bus waiting in excess of 5 minutes and multiple light cycles for the opportunity to turn left across MLK to Columbian because the trains interrupt the light cycle. That’s a long time to wait for a traffic light (and it is occasionally longer). There are similar issues at Alaska St, as well as Othello and Myrtle. Unfortunately, I don’t think an increase in train frequency is feasible without eliminating crossings.

      9. The left turn light waits so long because of really poor planning that assumes the trains don’t run often enough to include them in the normal signal plan. Any solution would have to actually include the trains in the planning.

  4. I moved here 6 years ago, without Sound Transit infrastructure I never before would have. Went to Angle Lake grand opening and look forward to attending the Northgate party as well.

  5. As Link gets longer, will the duration of the nightly maintenance window decrease, or will the last trains in the Seattle core start getting earlier and earlier. It would be a huge step backwards if Capital Hill one day loses service after 11 PM on Sundays, so that the last train can get to Everett by midnight. I suppose another option would be to just turn back the late night trains at Lynnwood to avoid the issue.

    1. ST has said that a North operations and maintenance light rail facility will be needed, likely in concert with Everett Link’s opening.

      1. The Paine Field diversion has a big advantage that it opens more redevelopment possibilities appropriate for an OMF near Airport Road between 99 and 526.

    2. It really depends on what they decide to do.

      TriMet does a rolling maintenance window. The red line starts service earlier than anything else (first train leaves Beaverton at 3:30 am) but it also ends service earlier than the other lines and at those hours is only every half hour.

      In the end each section gets a maintenance window of sorts, though there is only about an hour and a half or so each night that they don’t have any trains running at all.

      Obviously Link will serve a lot more people than MAX, but at 3:30 am will Everett really need anything better than half hourly service?

  6. That was quite a day! Thank you for your steadfast support then and in the years since!

    1. And thanks for ST2!

      I know a lot of people thought it was too soon to go back to the voters with a Transit-only package so soon after the rejection of R+T, but you had it right.

      Thanks! (if you really are Greg Nickels……)

      1. I really am and I thank you for your kind words. ST 2, getting the plan approved by the Board and getting voter approval, was the most fun I had in a long public life.

      2. I’m glad Mayor Nickels took my advice back then…
        Okay, that’s sort of a joke.

        Back then I was still writing the regional article for the All Aboard Washington newsletter, and immediately after the Roads & Transit ballot measure failed, I said we should put out the transit only portion and see what happens. I predicted it would pass if it was put that way before the voters.

        I really appreciated Greg Nickels actually pushing it.

        With ST3’s passage, it only confirms the public’s desire for a robust rail system.

        There will be a marked change when the ST2 segments come online.

        In a year or so, when the Cascades service recovers from the 501 derailment setback and is back on track, it would be time to have a statewide initiative (such as the two 1990 ballot measures that funded the Amtrak California system).

        Contrary to popular myth, people do want good rail service in this area, and across the state, also.

  7. I was lucky enough to score access to the media event with all the politicians before the general open, so I didn’t attend on opening day. I think I saw enough happy backslapping and speech giving to last me a lifetime.

    But it’s been a pretty good 10 years for such a nascent system. In just 10 years we have had 3 system expansions, several minor operational tweaks and improvements, and several Metro bus restructures. And the general public consensus has become very pro-LR, which directly resulted in the passage of ST3.

    ST seemed pretty confident that Link would be a success, but I think even they have been surprised by the ridership growth. Link is a bit of an outlier in the magnitude and longevity of its ridership growth. Hopefully ST will adjust their projections going forward.

    But the next 10 years promise to be even more momentous. NG-Link, East-Link, Lynnwood-Link? Katy bar the door, this is rail town now!

  8. At the age of ten years old, I was a professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University. What has Link accomplished in its first ten years?

  9. I would love to have an estimate of how far link trains have traveled in that time. Order of magnitude is something like 100 trips per day over an an average track length of 15 miles (30 round trip) for 10 years or just over 10 million miles. Anyone have more accurate numbers than that?

    1. Well, I did a little informal survey of odometers this week and 500K – 600K miles per LRV showed up most frequently. Summed up my spreadsheet of my own Link work as an operator and surprised myself: over 306,000 miles since January 1, 2010. Not bad for nine + years! (Didn’t keep track before then but probably 150 miles/workday)

  10. Meh. I don’t get all the back-slapping and high fives. During the ten years since the LR line’s opening, ST extended the initial segment south to Angle Lake and north across the Montlake cut, still well short of the original Sound Move northern terminus at 45th. Sorry, but I just can’t get very excited about what ST has been able to accomplish in regard to light rail since I originally checked that box for a “yes” vote way back in 1996, i.e., a single line that goes from just south of SeaTac to Husky Stadium after 22+ years.

    1. Sound Transit has long ago acknowledged their inability to deliver on the promises of Sound Move on schedule. In fact, the agency was mismanaged nearly to death until Joni Earl took over in the early 2000s and turned it around, and made some hard decisions. She had a real matter-of-fact attitude and did not mince words about the trouble they were in (I think she said that optimism isn’t our friend).

      In the context of how bad it got, I think getting the initial segment done by 2009 was a major accomplishment. U-Link took a long time, and lost a station, but it still beat its (admittedly conservative) schedule and budget. With tunneling done as well as could be expected, Northgate has the possibility of opening early as well. Lynnwood slipped a year, and I think East Link slipped even more, but East Link is arguably an even more complex project than Central Link. Bellevue, Mercer Island, and WSDOT all made it more challenging for Sound Transit in their own ways, and led to some disappointing outcomes, but all things considered, East Link will be a good and productive line. Remember for a certain point in time, it looked likely that we were going to build the Vision Line (literally) on I-405.

      In the grand scheme of things though, while very real, the failures of Sound Move are largely irrelevant in the long term, and help set the stage for a better Sound Transit that is capable of being realistic and delivering the projects that voters approve.

      1. ST was unwilling to deliver on the promise of Sound Move, not unable. Never confuse intentional negligence for incompetence.

      2. @AlexKven So how many mulligans shall we give Sound Transit? (RQ)

        Perhaps I should have been more explicit in my original comment to save you the lengthy post about ST’s history since I’ve witnessed it firsthand from the agency’s inception.

        University Link was another reset of the original plan and still failed to reach First Hill and the northern terminus at 45th, even with the additional ten years. If some want to marvel at that accomplishment then so be it, but please save me the on-time and on-budget spin.

        And for the record, Northgate Link, East Link and Lynnwood Link will ALL miss their original target dates for completion. Federal Way Link, Lynnwood Link, East Link as well as the extension to Redmond have ALL blown through their original cost estimates.

      3. “Lynnwood slipped a year, and I think East Link slipped even more, but East Link is arguably an even more complex project than Central Link”

        East Link slipped first because Bellevue insisted on a year’s worth of extra alternatives and studies and tried repeatedly to obstruct the line, and Kemper Freeman filed lawsuits to try to block Link from the Eastside or the I-90 bridge, and another person threatened to sue ST if it crossed the Mercer Slough anywhere but underground. It slipped again after the recession lowered tax revenues, as did Federal Way and probably Lynnnwood. Lynnwood slipped again last year due to high cost estimates; reasons include the unprecedented cost of real estate and cities demanding gold-plated mitigation.

        I think the original dates were 2021 Northgate, 2022 Overlake, 2023 272nd. On the eve of ST3 if was 2021 Northgate, 2023 Overlake, 2023 240th. In ST3 273rd was folded into 320th and both are scheduled for 2024, while Overlake is sticking to 2023 but downtown Redmond opens in 2024 I think.

      4. “ST was unwilling to deliver on the promise of Sound Move, not unable. Never confuse intentional negligence for incompetence.”

        That sounds unfounded. The Sound Move budget was far overoptimistic; it assumed everything would go just as the concept said and it left no room for large contingencies. (Move Seattle turned out to have the same problem.) But it turns out that crossing the Ship Canal and building tunnels isn’t easy-peasy. ST had a fiscal meltdown in 2000 and Joni Earl, the new CEO, turned it around and made its future budgets and estimates very conservative.

        In the wake of that ST deferred the Portage Bay Ship Canal crossing fearing it had a singnificant risk of cost overruns that might sink the entire Link project. This was before anything opened when people were more skeptical of light rail and more ready to just cancel it. So it deferred Westlake-45th and built Westlake-SeaTac. You can call that “unwilling” but I’d call it prudent if they really thought the risk was that large. (And they’re the ones we designated to make the decision.) Later in the mid 2000s ST determined that another Ship Canal alternative was less risky and it built that.

  11. I’m glad to see I’m not the only one weirded out by the displays at University St Station.

  12. I was ST Community Outreach staff and spent much of the first day at Columbia City station, part of the public information crew there to help handle the crowds. We had to ration boardings at each station, otherwise the trains would fill up at the first one or two stations and nobody else could get on. A free ride day of course.

  13. Mike Orr, Sound Move brought in 3.9 billion dollars. That’s “overoptimistic”? How much did ST1 add to construction? IIRC only about 100 million. 0.1 billion. Most of the construction didn’t even start until after ST1 was approved. Sound Move was the biggest debacle in the state since WPPSS.

    “So it deferred Westlake-45th and built Westlake-SeaTac.”

    Actually, it built Westlake-TIBS. Seatac was also deferred.

    1. “Sound Move brought in 3.9 billion dollars. That’s “overoptimistic”? How much did ST1 add to construction?”

      I thought Sound Move was ST1. I normally call it ST1 but Tisgwm keeps telling me it was Sound Move so I called it that this time.

      “Seatac was also deferred.”

      SeaTac took a few months longer to complete. That wasn’t a budget limitation like the others; it was because of the FAA’s post-9/11 requirements that forced the station to be moved further away from the airport and late design changes so it couldn’t get finished by the time TIB opened.

      1. To alleviate confusion: The 1993 vote establishing ST included the original funding for Central Link from 45th to Seatac. The 1996 vote was supplemental income because ST blew through their 1993 funds. The difference between the two is over 100 million dollars and a decade long delay on construction.

      2. @A Joy. Your post above is incorrect; the 1993 vote did not fund the Sound Move plan at all. I think you should read the material at the following link to get reacquainted with the early history of the RTA. I think the author of said piece gets the facts right in this case.

        https://www.historylink.org/File/8002

      3. Tlsgwm, history disagrees. Heck, your claim doesn’t even pass the wikipedia test.

        “The agency has passed three major ballot measures to fund system expansion, including Sound Move (1996), Sound Transit 2 (2008) and Sound Transit 3 (2016).”

        Note the word “expansion”. 1993’s vote was for the 45th-Seatac line. 1996’s vote was to cover ST’s gross mismanagement of funds.

        I’ll confess to being confused about ST1 vs. Sound Move as names. But the 1993 ballot measure was most definitely supposed to fund this main segment of Central Link.

      4. @A Joy Hey, if you want to stay misinformed that’s fine with me. Phase 1 funding came from the 1996 Sound Move measure.

    2. That and to accommodate the third runway project and new terminal and hotel that’s supposed to replace the parking garage.

      1. The third runway was (and is) on the complete opposite side of the airport, on the west side. The airport parking garage is not, nor has it ever been, slated to be removed (it’s a huge cash cow for the Port). The proposed hotel – deferred at the moment – is/was sited on the open ground directly to the north of the garage just outside of where the current walkway from the Link station is. My understanding is that the walkway to Link was to be incorporated in the hotel’s design, which would be a vast improvement. Finally, the terminal expansion plans are to the north, spanning the freeway basically where the Doug Fox parking lot is. Removing the parking structure to expand the terminal couldn’t have added a single gate, which would kind of obviate the point of expansion.

        There was some discussion here about the siting decision for the airport station. Obviously it would have been far better to have placed it in or immediately adjacent to the terminal; however, whether or not 9/11 had anything to do with this hasn’t been shown in any ST planning or design documents I’ve ever seen. If the Feds had a problem with such a station for security purposes they would have closed or not allowed the O’Hare station, SFO’s BART station, Miami, PDX, Philadelphia, DCA, et al. The Port was certainly not in favor of competition for their highly lucrative parking, to the point where they neglected to put up adequate signage to the station in the terminal for quite some time. My strong suspicion is that, whatever additional requirements (if any) the Feds may have had, the main driver (pun intended) keeping the station away from the airport was the Port itself. With the insane – and mostly unforeseen – growth of the airport since then they are probably regretting that decision.

    3. Which was the vote that created ST, and which vote started ST Express and Sounder? And when did those two start running? I’ve forgotten.

      1. @Mike Orr First off, contrary to what commenter A Joy asserts above, the 1993 creation of the RTA, which we now call Sound Transit, DID NOT fund the first phase of the JRPC’s proposed transit plan. That occurred with the passage of Sound Move in 1996. Secondly, here’s another nice summary from historylink.org that I believe will answer your other questions as to when ST Express busses and Sounder trains began their services. I believe the start dates referenced are indeed correct.

        https://historylink.org/File/20188

      2. There was a ballot measure in 1995 for $6.7 billion.
        It failed. (No one had ever seen such a large dollar project before)

        The 1996 ballot measure was a scaled back version asking for funding.
        That passed.

        I appreciate both Mike Orr and Tlsgwm for staying true to the data.
        Now you can understand why I jump on anyone trying to change the history and the reasons for abandoning the ERC.

  14. @Mike Orr. Not to pile on here, but let’s get the dates right:

    “I think the original dates were 2021 Northgate, 2022 Overlake, 2023 272nd.”

    The original target dates for the ST2 light rail projects were as follows:
    Northgate, 2020
    Bellevue, 2020
    Overlake, 2021
    Lynnwood, 2023
    Des Moines, 2020
    North Federal Way, 2023

    This very blog captured it here:

    https://seattletransitblog.com/2008/07/10/the-15-year-plan-that-will-knock-your-socks-off/

    “…reasons include the unprecedented cost of real estate and cities demanding gold-plated mitigation.”

    Gold-plated mitigation? Really? That’s rich. I don’t recall such a narrative being expressed all that frequently (or emphatically) when the U of W insisted on $10 million of mitigation for their loss of parking spaces for the construction of the LR station there, the bulk of which were temporary losses. Nevertheless, municipalities and other jurisdictions impacted by ST’s light rail alignment have every right to protect their interests and that seems like a reasonable expectation to me. Is the $30 million cost for tree replacement along the Lynnwood Link corridor, the bulk of which is in the WSDOT ROW, also considered “gold-plated mitigation” in your view? That was also one of the reasons cited by ST as to why they missed their initial cost estimate by so much when it was announced back in Aug 2017.

    1. I think you’re right about 2020. It’s hard to keep track of all these dates that keep changing, and before STB started in 2007 I didn’t know about all these open houses and board meetings so the only things I knew about Link were was was in the newspaper. I don’t remember the details of the 1990s votes, just that Roads & Transit was larger and failed (how large was Link then?) and ST1 was 45th-SeaTac.

    2. Can you clarify the timeline history of Norfthgate Link and Lynnwood Link because I’m getting them confused in multiple ways. I keep thinking Northgate Link is on time but I think it also slipped in the recession, and that accounts for the difference between 2020 and 2021.

      So if Northgate was originally 2020 and Lynnwood was 2023, how many times were they postponed and for what reasons?

      1. Northgate Link got delayed by one year as part of the entire capital program (Sound Move and ST2 elements) realignment that the agency put into place for 2011, officially announcing it through Motion 2010-102 in Dec 2010. This was done in sync with the Proposed 2011 Budget, the Proposed 2011 Transportation Improvement Plan and the Proposed 2011 Financial Plan. For further details, I would suggest reading the aforementioned motion in full. (It’s still accessible on ST’s website under the board documents.) I believe that this one-year delay is the only official one for this project.

        Lynnwood Link’s baselining was put on hold for six months when the agency announced its significant budget problems in Aug 2017. Since then, I believe this project has slipped another three to six months as the project wasn’t baselined until May 2018. The April 2019 Link Progress Report shows a revenue service date in the third quarter of 2024.

        I hope this helps clears some things up for you. As always, thanks for your replies.

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