by GREG NICKELS, Mayor of Seattle and Chair of the Sound Transit Board
This is the last installment in my recollections leading up to the opening of Sound Transit’s first Light Rail line tomorrow. In six previous installments I have reflected on the highs and lows of the twenty-one years that I have been involved in this epic journey.
In many ways, the ground breaking on November 8, 2003 ended the political debate over whether mass transit would serve Seattle (though ST 2 engendered a vigorous debate on whether it should be extended beyond Sound Move).
In my first month as Seattle Mayor I gathered all the City staff working on the project and let them know our job was to team with Sound Transit to make sure the system got built — as promised to the voters. This was a relief to many staff who really did not know whether the previous administration supported or opposed building the project.
Once we broke ground, I enjoyed visiting the construction impacted neighborhoods twice a month and talking with the property owners, shopkeepers and residents; trying to anticipate, prevent and solve problems. In doing this I was taking a page from Seattle City Councilmember George Benson’s work during the construction of the Downtown Seattle transit Tunnel in the 1980s.
Like grief, dealing with a huge project in your neighborhood is dealt with in distinct stages. Fear, anticipation, resignation, relief and excitement among them. Seventy-five percent of the small businesses along the MLK portion of the route at the start of construction are still there – I’m proud of that. The street has been transformed, as has the neighborhood. And the presence of Light Rail will connect the people of the Rainier Valley neighborhood to lots of new and exciting job and educational opportunities – just a short train ride away.
Columbia City is approaching this opportunity most creatively, going so far as to have pedicabs available to whisk people from the station to their historic business district nearby where Light Rail riders can enjoy great restaurants, a farmer’s market and theater.
This first line will be warmly embraced, especially when the thirteenth station – SeaTac Airport, opens late this year. But it is only the beginning. The next line, north from downtown to the University of Washington, received its $813 million Full Funding Grant Agreement from the Federal Transit Administration in December and has already broken ground. Those two underground stations on Capitol Hill and at Husky Stadium will basically mark the completion of Sound Move and will open in 2016.
After the defeat of the infamous doomed shotgun marriage of Roads and Transit in 2007, there was little political appetite to explore a transit ballot for 2008. Given our experience in 1996 (and $4/gallon gasoline), I was convinced that the 2008 Presidential ballot was the right one for light rail. In addition I believed that the Legislature would take away the region’s ability to place transit on any future ballot (as they had stopped Sound Transit in 2006) and take the taxing authority for highways. Fortunately there was a core group of ST Board members willing to engage the issue and we went to work. Ultimately on July 24th all but two boardmembers agreed upon a plan and it went on the ballot.
Sound Transit 2 passed with a 57.02% yes vote on November 4, 2008 – 60.5% in King, 54.21% in Snohomish and 49.08% in Pierce County. Light Rail will expand north from the University to Northgate and on out to Lynnwood, south of the airport to Federal Way and east across Lake Washington to Bellevue and out to Redmond. These projects will be complete in 15 years. I have no illusions that there will be no further challenges in building such an extensive set of projects (such as the current economic crisis) – there is a lot of work ahead! But when complete, 70% of the residences and 85% of the jobs in Metro Seattle will be within an easy bus ride, bike ride or walk of a rail station. With a capacity of one million passengers a day, it will transform how we get around.
I’ve wondered — how often does someone get to see through such a journey in their career? From the 1988 advisory ballot through passage of ST 2 and opening the initial line it has been an amazing adventure. While certainly not easy (1995-96 and 2000-01 come to mind!), it has been an incredible honor to work with the elected officials on the ST Board, the staff (Joni Earl for instance) and particularly the interested citizens (Mona Lee and Dick Burkhart come to mind) who have engaged, often passionately in this saga. I do wish the voters had approved the Forward Thrust plan in 1968, but what a ride my generation would have missed! For someone who wants to make a difference in people’s lives it has been the chance of a lifetime.
The author is the mayor of Seattle.