by GREG NICKELS
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.
I 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.