W e are weeks away from living in a real city. On July 18, Sound Transit will begin light-rail service from the downtown Seattle bus tunnel to Tukwila. It's the first part of an honest-to-god regional mass-transit system that can get you from the city to the airport as quickly as a $40 cab ride can—or faster when the freeway's clogged with traffic—for the price of a cup of coffee. A gaggle of elected glad-handers and reporters piled onboard a train for a preview ride (from Westlake Center to Tukwila and back) last week. Here are a few things we noticed.
And it's a smooth ride, at least in tunnels, on elevated tracks, and on the street. However, the train jerked slightly as it accelerated out of stations and wobbled a bit as the car hit 55 miles per hour. After the blue-and-white train moved out of the bus tunnel, past the stadiums—Mayor Greg Nickels gave a shout-out to the Mariners and the Seahawks (but not the Sounders)—and through the center of Beacon Hill, it joined the automobiles on Martin Luther King Jr. Way South. Brilliantly, the train communicates with traffic lights. "Not 100 percent of the time," says county council member Larry Phillips. "But most of the time, the train gets the right of way." That said, the train bolting down Martin Luther King Jr. Way, not stopping, could be a mixed blessing: "People aren't used to trains in Seattle," says Nickels. "This is a very quiet train. If kids don't look both ways, things will not be good."
With campaigns under way for this fall, prepare to see the Sound Transit board members running for office pulling muscles from incessant backslapping. During the ride, Mayor Nickels (seeking reelection) and county council members Dow Constantine and Larry Phillips (both running for county executive and doing a subtle let's-politely-avoid-each-other-while-we're-on-this-train-together dance) waxed nostalgic about how long it's taken to get to this point and how thrilled they are to be here. They will undoubtedly try to one-up each other, each vaunting that he fought longest and hardest for this day to come. You know—Nickels will be saying he advocated for light rail since he was in utero, Phillips will boast he was around for the first failed ballot measure in the autumn of 1812 or whenever, and so on. Phillips, with his mind obviously on trying to capture more votes in the county, said on the train that Sound Transit should build future extensions in Seattle's suburbs. "That is appealing to voters on the Eastside," he says. (Light rail is scheduled to reach Bellevue by 2020 and Redmond's Overlake neighborhood by 2021. The train will cross the lake in the center of I-90.)
It is a monolithic glass-and-steel structure that sits on the edge of nothingness—next to a highway, two huge grass fields, and a parking lot—right under the Sea-Tac flight path. The constant roar of planes and cars coming to and from the airport makes the location less than optimal for housing, schools, movie theaters, coffee shops, or any other sort of transit-oriented development. Inside, there's a large sculpture of a splashing water drop, but that's about it. This station is nothing but a connection to the airport; a station at Southcenter Mall, which is farther away and was deemed too expensive, would have made more sense.
As the light rail rumbles through Seattle's deep south, the brightly painted homes and recently opened storefronts along the line in New Holly give way to long stretches of sidewalkless strip malls and houses with peeling paint and bars on their windows. As the train rolls along toward Tukwila, the ride becomes like a safari. Overgrown yards are the jungle, and the carcass of a rusted-out Mercedes with a busted back windshield is the wildlife. Most people haven't seen this part of town before, and for good reason: There isn't much here. Unless Sound Transit builds more stops along the way, there won't be much here for a while.
The Bay Area has the BART, Maryland has the MARC, London has the tube. What will we call ours? Technically, it's called the Sound Transit: Link Light Rail—which is a mouthful, but makes a fun acronym: STLLR. But "I'm going to catch the Stellar!" is a little gay, and "I'm going to catch the light rail" sounds too official. Where does that leave us? Nickels proposes calling it "the Link" (maybe he is a secret Legend of Zelda nerd?). Someone suggested calling it "the White Snake"—"How cool would that be? 'I'm riding the White Snake down to Qwest Field to see a Whitesnake concert! YEAAAH!'"—which is a ridiculous idea. Maybe we should just take the plain route, like New York's subway riders do, and call it "the train."
On opening weekend, July 18 and 19, the train will be free, though it will only be running from 10:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. on Saturday and 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. on Sunday. (Sound Transit is expecting 100,000 riders on opening day. It'll have double the number of trains out than it normally will.) Plus, once you get to the end, you'll have to wait in line (again) to take the train back home or get on a damn bus. After opening weekend, the fare will range from $1.75 to $2.50 for adults, depending on how far you're traveling. (Kids, seniors, and disabled people will pay less.) Metro bus transfers and Sound Transit light-rail transfers are interchangeable. The train will run from 5:00 a.m. to 1:00 a.m. Mondays though Saturdays and from 6:00 a.m. to midnight on Sundays. Trains will arrive every 7.5 minutes during rush hour, every 10 minutes in nonpeak hours, and every 15 minutes after 10:00 p.m. The 13.9-mile run from Westlake Station (in the downtown bus tunnel) to Tukwila Station (in the middle of nowhere) takes about 30 minutes and stops at 10 stations along the way. By December, the tracks will reach the airport (in the meantime, a shuttle bus will finish the connection from Tukwila Station).
Between the absence of a link to Southcenter and the fact that the UW station won't be online for another seven years, we need to prevent delays in station construction whenever they might come up. While construction is incredibly disruptive and the sound of jackhammers will keep many neighbors awake, this thing needs to get built. Having a truly connected, transit-oriented city will change the way we live, work, drink, and travel in Seattle. (Plus there's the added bonus of shutting up all of those dicks from Portland who think they're better than us because they've already got a full light-rail line.) Capitol Hill and University District stations are scheduled to open in 2016, and Northgate is supposed to open in 2020, although Sound Transit is already working on a plan to get to Northgate sooner. Part of it is money, but most of it is logistics. Sound Transit spokesman Bruce Gray says that a lot of design work still needs to be done on the North End stations and, unfortunately, "No amount of money is going to make your designs come together more quickly." Gray says if the North End plan works out, the line could be finished by 2018. If all goes according to plan, Lynnwood (the northernmost stop) and Federal Way (the southernmost stop) will have service by 2023.