Back in mid-July, we at NPI joined with Sound Tran­sit and many pro-tran­sit activists to cel­e­brate the five year anniver­sary of Cen­tral Link, which opened to the pub­lic on a sun­ny Sat­ur­day morn­ing to thou­sands of eager riders.

More than six­ty months lat­er, Link is doing spec­tac­u­lar­ly well. Rid­er­ship just keeps going up, pleas­ant­ly exceed­ing even our own expec­ta­tions. And it’s not a sur­prise why: Peo­ple like the reli­a­bil­i­ty and con­ve­nience of light rail.

From the Sound Tran­sit August 2014 rid­er­ship report (PDF):

Cen­tral Link con­tin­ued to see dou­ble-dig­it increas­es and set an all-time month­ly record with total August 2014 board­ings up almost 16% com­pared to August 2013.

Aver­age week­day board­ings stood at over 39,000 for the month of August, an amaz­ing increase of 21%, while aver­age Sat­ur­day board­ings were large­ly unchanged due to start­up test­ing in the DSTT [Down­town Seat­tle Tran­sit Tun­nel] for Uni­ver­si­ty Link.

This is fan­tas­tic news. Total light rail board­ings for the month of August sur­passed 1.1 mil­lion. The Sound Tran­sit sys­temwide total was near­ly three mil­lion. Cen­tral Link is rou­tine­ly per­form­ing above its tar­gets, which is remarkable.

Pri­or to Cen­tral Link’s con­struc­tion, crit­ics of Sound Tran­sit had harsh things to say about the project. They panned Sound Tran­sit’s revised cost and rid­er­ship esti­mates, claimed bus­es and bus rapid tran­sit were supe­ri­or to light rail despite clear evi­dence to the con­trary, and said the cap­i­tal costs involved in lay­ing track weren’t worth it.

They deri­sive­ly referred to Cen­tral Link as a “train to nowhere”, espe­cial­ly after the air­port seg­ment was cut from the ini­tial align­ment (it was lat­er restored).

Tim Eyman launched a statewide ini­tia­tive to defund Sound Tran­sit, which failed in Sound Tran­sit’s juris­dic­tion but nar­row­ly passed statewide. (The pro­vi­sion of the ini­tia­tive intend­ed to defund Sound Tran­sit nev­er went into effect, how­ev­er, because the rev­enue had already been pledged to pay off bonds for light rail construction).

Ulti­mate­ly, Sound Tran­sit was able to over­come a tor­rent of vocal oppo­si­tion and get Cen­tral Link built, ful­fill­ing its promis­es to the peo­ple of Puget Sound.

It was­n’t easy. Even as con­struc­tion got under­way, crit­ics were still attack­ing the project and declar­ing the sys­tem was­n’t need­ed. Well, not any­more. For the most part, they’ve gone silent. And that’s because they were wrong.

Sound Tran­sit now has a well-deserved rep­u­ta­tion as an agency that gets things done. Projects are thought­ful­ly and care­ful­ly man­aged. The dark days are a thing of the past. Last year, we were hon­ored to have Sound Tran­sit CEO Joni Earl speak at our 2013 Spring Fundrais­ing Gala, which cel­e­brat­ed both the tenth anniver­saries of NPI and of Cen­tral Link’s ground­break­ing. Joni spoke to us about the agen­cy’s turn­around (which she led) and the future of Sound Transit.

We have come a long way, but we have a long way to go still. Peo­ple all over this region are clam­or­ing for light rail. They nat­u­ral­ly want Link to serve their neigh­bor­hood. Those who have access to Link now are very for­tu­nate, and an increas­ing num­ber are avail­ing them­selves of the oppor­tu­ni­ty to take the train.

The peo­ple of this region rec­og­nize that we need a peo­ple-cen­tric trans­porta­tion sys­tem, not an auto-cen­tric one. As King Coun­ty Exec­u­tive Dow Con­stan­tine has said, Puget Sounders vote with their feet and their ORCA cards.

Our region has long need­ed a rail spine, and at last, we’re build­ing one out. Cen­tral Link alone has been a tremen­dous suc­cess… but it’s only the beginning.

As Link expands north, south, and east, it will attract even more rid­ers and take more cars off the road. Uni­ver­si­ty Link and Angle Lake Link are both near­ing com­ple­tion, which is a big deal. Con­struc­tion is already start­ing on North Link (bring­ing light rail to North­gate and beyond), and will start soon on East Link.

Even as we look to the future, though, we should­n’t for­get what it took to get to where we are today. Let’s take a lit­tle trip down mem­o­ry lane and exam­ine what the crit­ics were say­ing about light rail back in the ear­ly 2000s, before we had it.

Let’s start with for­mer King Coun­ty Coun­cilmem­ber Mag­gi Fimia:

It costs too much, it does too lit­tle, it down­grades express-bus sys­tems… It draws con­struc­tion resources from wor­thi­er projects. It breaks faith with tax­pay­ers. It’s dangerous.

That quote is from an arti­cle pub­lished around the time of Link’s groundbreaking.

Of course, Link’s con­struc­tion did not harm express bus ser­vice, oth­er projects in Sound Tran­sit’s pipeline, or break faith with tax­pay­ers. To the con­trary: it ful­filled a promise made many years ago. Link is not dan­ger­ous; it is safe and reliable.

Mov­ing on to for­mer attor­ney gen­er­al and guber­na­to­r­i­al can­di­date Rob McKen­na, a long­time oppo­nent of light rail, who was a thorn in ST’s side for years:

My pre­dic­tion is that by the time we get this thing built or even under con­struc­tion, Seat­tle is going to decide it wants to go with the monorail.

That was from an arti­cle pub­lished in Sep­tem­ber 2001, when Sound Tran­sit was revis­ing the align­ment for what became Cen­tral Link.

McKen­na turned out to be half right — Seat­tleites did vote to build mono­rail sev­er­al times. But then, in 2005, they reversed them­selves, shut­ting the effort down after its fis­cal and man­age­ment prob­lems made Sound Tran­sit’s look mild by com­par­i­son. Mean­while, Sound Tran­sit per­se­vered and got Cen­tral Link built.

Seat­tle activist Eliz­a­beth Camp­bell is among those who wants to res­ur­rect the plan to build a mono­rail line between West Seat­tle and Bal­lard, which would have been the long-defunct mono­rail author­i­ty’s first project. She’s sub­mit­ted an ini­tia­tive to the Novem­ber bal­lot to fund a study the idea, but it’s got wide­spread opposition.

Now for Both­ell res­i­dent Dou­glas Pin­nt:

I’d love to see them aban­don the project. It’s an awful lot of mon­ey… You cal­cu­late how many peo­ple actu­al­ly would ride the trains and it’s prob­a­bly insignif­i­cant com­pared to rides on the bus­es. Think about the fact the Microsoft cam­pus would­n’t even be on the rail line: the most pres­ti­gious employ­er would­n’t be served at all.

As rid­er­ship reports have shown, a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of peo­ple are already rid­ing the one light rail line we have. Rid­er­ship is pro­ject­ed to sig­nif­i­cant­ly increase once addi­tion­al Link seg­ments open — includ­ing East Link, which will serve that all-impor­tant Microsoft cam­pus through the Over­lake Station.

It bears remem­ber­ing that Cen­tral Link was and remains our starter line. It’s the begin­ning of a sys­tem that will car­ry a huge num­ber of peo­ple once it is prop­er­ly built out. Thanks to Sound Tran­sit 2, we’re get­ting light rail to Microsoft.

Rome was­n’t built in a day either; this is a long-term investment.

Here’s West Seat­tle res­i­dent Eugene Bar­tol:

I’d real­ly, real­ly pre­ferred it being suc­cess­ful, but I just could­n’t see it.

What about now, Eugene? Do you see why hav­ing a rail spine makes a great deal of sense? It’s reli­able tran­sit that you don’t need a sched­ule to ride. It’s a route that can’t be dis­con­tin­ued. It’s grade-sep­a­rat­ed, so it can’t get stuck in traf­fic. It has low oper­at­ing costs. It can scale up to accom­mo­date larg­er num­bers of rid­ers as need­ed. It can be built below ground, above ground, or at grade. Sim­ply put, light rail is ver­sa­tile and ide­al for mov­ing peo­ple through con­gest­ed corridors.

Final­ly, we have this non­sense from Tim Eyman:

Peo­ple out­side Seat­tle should­n’t be forced to pay for Seat­tle’s bil­lion-dol­lar choo choo trains. Sound Tran­sit admits it can­not pro­ceed with its ‘train to nowhere’ unless hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars are paid by tax­pay­ers out­side Seat­tle. King Coun­ty Exec­u­tive Ron Sims, Sound Tran­sit’s chair­man, likes the sta­tus quo and does­n’t want any­thing to stop his gravy train.

Actu­al­ly, under Sound Tran­sit’s adopt­ed pol­i­cy of sub­area equi­ty, costs for Cen­tral Link were paid for by peo­ple who live in the area the light rail line serves.

Oth­er rail projects have and are being financed the same way. For exam­ple, East Link is now being paid for by tax­pay­ers in the East King sub­area, which East Link will serve in a few years once con­struc­tion has been completed.

Vot­ers in Sound Tran­sit’s juris­dic­tion have con­sis­tent­ly vot­ed to build light rail when it was on the bal­lot by itself (in 1996 with Sound Move and again in 2008 with Sound Tran­sit 2). They’ve also vot­ed down Eyman schemes to do away with it, includ­ing I‑776 in 2002 and I‑1325 in 2011.

The deri­sive “train to nowhere” sneers, once a sta­ple of anti-light rail com­men­tary, quick­ly went away once Sound Tran­sit CEO Joni Earl announced an agree­ment with the Port of Seat­tle to build Air­port Link and send light rail direct­ly into Seat­tle-Taco­ma Inter­na­tion­al Air­port. Air­port Link ulti­mate­ly opened just five months after the rest of Cen­tral Link; its five year anniver­sary is in December.

The above quote from Eyman came from an op-ed that ran in Feb­ru­ary of 2003, about six months before NPI was found­ed. Eyman at the time was try­ing to launch a new statewide ini­tia­tive to kill Cen­tral Link. Thank­ful­ly, it nev­er got off the ground.

Dur­ing the past decade, we’ve advanced the dis­cus­sion around light rail to the point where the focus is on where it should go next and how we pay for it. That’s sig­nif­i­cant. It is worth remem­ber­ing that at the turn of the cen­tu­ry, there were plen­ty of peo­ple and orga­ni­za­tions try­ing to dis­man­tle Sound Tran­sit and ensure light rail nev­er got built. Nowa­days, ST is hum­ming along and in good shape.

Thanks to coura­geous lead­ers like Joni Earl and Greg Nick­els, we moved for­ward instead of los­ing an oppor­tu­ni­ty to build a bet­ter trans­porta­tion sys­tem for our region. Our chal­lenge now is to keep mov­ing for­ward. Tomor­row, I’ll talk about what needs to hap­pen at the state lev­el to make Sound Tran­sit 3 possible.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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