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.