NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Wednesday, March 16th, 2016

Sound Transit’s University Link light rail extension: An incredible experience

Yesterday afternoon, as rays of sunlight broke through the cloudy skies above our region, Sound Transit invited representatives of regional and local media outlets to join agency leadership for a special University Link light rail preview ride and tour of the new University of Washington and Capitol Hill stations.

University Link opens to the public this Saturday, March 19th, at 10 AM, six months ahead of schedule and two hundred million dollars under budget. It is a vital, much-anticipated northward expansion of Central Link, which currently connects Westlake Center to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Seatac.

The entire segment runs underground, like the subways of New York, Boston, D.C., or Philadelphia, and is therefore not susceptible to getting stuck in traffic.

Riding University Link is an incredible experience. The stations are beautiful and thoughtfully designed, from the entrances to the mezzanines to the platforms. The public art you’ll see is mesmerizing. But the best part of all is being able to step onto a train and zoom between neighborhoods in the span of just a few minutes.

Going from the UW to Capitol Hill in three hundred seconds, bypassing all the traffic congestion above ground, is quite the sensation. It’s never been possible before now due to our lack of a subway. Above ground, you can walk, bike, take a bus, hail a taxicab, or summon a ridesharing service to get between neighborhoods.

But you can’t get between Capitol Hill and the UW campus in four minutes on any of those modes. Especially not at rush hour, as writing staff of The Stranger discovered in October of 2014 when eight of them competed with each other to go from the weekly’s offices on Capitol Hill to the College Inn.

Link light rail train exiting tunnel

A Link light rail train exits a tunnel, entering the Capitol Hill Station (Photo: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)

University Link is going to fundamentally reshape mobility in Seattle and beyond. The addition of these new stations will likely result in a huge ridership boom. A week after opening day, Metro and Sound Transit will introduce revised bus routing to provide better connections with the new stations.

There will be new routes, too, like the 541, which will run between Redmond’s Overlake neighborhood and the new University of Washington Station.

University Link is going to simplify getting around for a lot of Seattleites and visitors to Seattle. It means more one seat rides for more people, and simpler trips for still others. For instance, a Rainier Valley resident who wants to get to a Huskies game at Hec Ed or Husky Stadium can now get there using their own two feet and the train. A prospective visitor to the UW campus can use Link to get from the airport or Amtrak to a hotel and to campus, so as not to have to bother with a car.

Getting this system built wasn’t easy. Sound Transit had to overcome a lot of hostility and cynicism, as I explained to KING5’s Josh Green for his story on the preview ride. The agency dug itself into a hole in its early years due to project mismanagement and became a target of Tim Eyman. Fortunately, Sound Transit’s board found the perfect person to turn everything around: Joni Earl.

Joni has now been succeeded as Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff, but she remains involved as CEO Emeritus. Rogoff pays tribute to her at pretty much every opportunity, which is appropriate, since it was her leadership that transformed Sound Transit into the high performing agency it is today.

ST’s recent track record of success has mostly silenced the naysayers of yesteryear, who used to constantly trash light rail as a bad investment.

Occasionally, a critic will pop up and complain that the system should have already been built out to Northgate by now. These same anti-rail critics are the ones who vociferously argued that Link should be canceled altogether back at the turn of the century, when Sound Transit conceded it needed to restart its planning process.

It’s worth keeping in mind that had those critics gotten their way, light rail never would have been built at all. Link would have suffered a similar fate to that of Forward Thrust. We’d still have an all “rubber tire” transit system running on roads, and we’d be lamenting our failure to invest in a rail spine to complement our bus network and provide reliable transportation through our congested corridors.

Thankfully, wiser heads prevailed and ensured that Central Link got built. That was followed by Airport Link. Now we have University Link opening, which is a huge milestone, and that’ll be followed by Angle Lake Link later this year.

Federal assistance secured by Senator Patty Murray was crucial in making Link a reality. The federal government stepped up to provide most of the money for University Link, and is very happy with its investment. (U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx will be here Friday to help dedicate the new extension.)

If you would like to try out University Link for yourself, you may do so beginning Saturday morning, when the new extension will be open to the public. Leading up to that, Sound Transit has special launch and commemoration events planned. We will bring you extensive coverage of those events as we celebrate the inauguration of service to our region’s two newest light rail stations.

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