Offering frequent news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Friday, July 17, 2009

T-Minus twelve hours and counting....till the opening of Sound Transit Central Link!

What a weekend this is going to be.

We at NPI are still having trouble getting over the notion that the years of talking, arguing, waiting, and litigating is over. Sound Transit's Central Link light rail is finally commencing operations. Finally. It's a dream come true.

For a city that has lacked a rail spine for oh-so-long, tomorrow's launch will be like celebrating the arrival of a new century. Almost every major city in the United States has a rail system, but for what seems like an eternity, Seattle and suburbs have not, because we foolishly dismantled ours decades ago.

Ever since we the people of this region realized that mistake and voted in favor of building light rail back in 1996, we've been patiently waiting for this line to open. Some of us have fought valiantly for years to defend the project against legions of critics and naysayers who tried to do everything in their power to stop progress. Fortunately, we succeeded and they failed.

When I got involved in politics in 2002, it was to defend Sound Transit from the likes of Washington's Grover Norquist clone, Tim Eyman.

At the time, the agency was under fire from almost all quarters and struggling to rebound from a series of diastrous missteps.

But I believed that Sound Transit was trying to fulfill an incredibly important mission, and I made a point of standing up for the good people that work there.
My faith in them has been vindicated many times since then.

Under the leadership of Joni Earl, Sound Transit has become more transparent, more accountable, and more effective than almost any other government agency I could think of. Polling in recent years has that the public trusts ST more than it trusts WSDOT (Washington State Department of Transportation) or Metro.

ST's policy of under-promising and over-delivering has served our region well. Since 2001-2002, Sound Transit has successfully expanded Sounder and ST Express bus service, opened new park and rides, debuted new HOV access ramps, launched the Tacoma Link streetcar, and built Central Link light rail, as well as breaking ground on University Link and winning voter approval of Sound Transit 2. What they've accomplished in the span of seven and a half years is amazing.

Even critics admit as much. Here's an excerpt from an editorial in tomorrow's Seattle Times, "Sound Transit opens 14 miles of light-rail service":
SOUND Transit's shiny debut of light-rail service is a notable exclamation point on four decades of debate, frustration and admirable tenacity.

A long-held vision for the region is celebrated with the opening of a 14-mile line between downtown Seattle and Tukwila, one stop short of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport . That connection is scheduled to open by the end of year.

Light rail has been 41 years in the making, with a first failed vote in 1968. Voters eventually endorsed light-rail construction in 1996, and they held the dream through budget disasters, management implosions and a steady drumbeat of skepticism and opposition, including our own.
Even though Central Link is done, there are still people out there finding fault with it. Like the grumbling over parking, for instance, which the media has been playing up. They're several years behind the times.

The decision was made long ago not to build a plethora of garages along this line (or raze property for big asphalt lots) because that would require precious resources to be wasted doing something we already do too much of: subsidize the automobile. Building new park and rides, especially where there aren't any now, merely encourages people to drive more.

That defeats the most important objective of building rail, which is to revitalize, strengthen, and create true neighborhoods.

Light rail isn't just a transportation system; it's the foundation for walkable, bikable, mixed use development, which is exactly what we need to focus growth where we want it to be. Otherwise, we get sprawl. Lots and lots of sprawl. (Like the miles of strip malls along Highway 7 in Spanaway.)

And it's a win-win: Developers love investing in properties around rail lines because they know they can count on the rail line being there when they decide to redevelop. That's not the case with bus routes, which are confusing and frequently changed by transit planners to accomodate rider demand. Neighborhoods cannot be built around buses, but they can be built around streetcars and light rail.

The opening of Central Link will put to the test how well Sound Transit has designed our region's first light rail line. Judging by the number of skeptics the agency has won over already, and the positive change that's occuring in the Rainier Valley, Link is poised to bring great public benefits to the thousands of people who live nearby it in the months and years to come.


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