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Originally published Sunday, July 19, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Danny Westneat

Light rail shows Seattle is 'growing up'

Seattle finally has something most big cities had decades ago: a rapid mass-transit line.

Seattle Times staff columnist

Seattle, the little engine that doubted it could, finally got its train.

Today we're a bit more like Chicago or New York than we were yesterday.

"We now join the cities of the world," Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels said, as the inaugural light-rail train jostled down Rainier Valley toward Tukwila on Saturday morning. "We are growing up."

The mayor was beaming like a kid on board Thomas the Tank Engine.

It's true, Seattle finally has something most big cities had decades ago: a rapid mass-transit line. During the opening ceremony, everyone was shaking their heads at how long it took for stubborn Seattle to mature out of adolescence.

Seattle Congressman Jim McDermott said he remembers arriving here in 1966, from Chicago, and asking why we weren't building train tracks along then-new Interstate 5.

"Everybody kind of looked at me like: What are you talking about?" he said.

It was in the 1980s, I think, that a comedian called Seattle "Mayberry with skyscrapers." All the time I've lived here, since 1985, politics has revolved around that tension. Do we want to be a big city? Or not?

Do we want to grow up?

It's still not clear, as last week Seattle's small-town DNA was on full display. People expressed a catalog of provincial fears and paranoia in the face of the coming trains.

Would pedestrians be able to cross the street without getting run over? My, those trains are noisy. Is it safe to drive near the tracks? What about parking? Won't the trains just be magnets for bands of thugs?

It was as if nobody had seen mass transit before. It turns out it's big. And mechanized. And public.

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Nickels says Seattle's psychological aversions to urban bigness were always a major stumbling block to getting rail.

"We hate sprawl, but as a Western city, we also despise density," he said. "My view is, we can't have it both ways. Should we build out or build up? I believe strongly that we should build up. But, oh, man, that has not been an easy issue to settle."

It isn't settled yet. In one form or another, big city vs. small town remains the dominant issue in the city's mayoral race.

I have been struck in talking to Nickels' challengers how many of them say he's too big-city for Seattle. He's a Chicago-style bully, they claim. He's a Tammany Hall strongman with no respect for Seattle "process." One former council member, Peter Steinbrueck, calls Nickels "his Lordship" and said he runs "a Gestapo-like regime."

Please. These criticisms say far more about the critics than they do about Nickels.

First, if you are fearful of Nickels, then you have no business in politics. Remember when Nickels was "the weenie" to Mark Sidran's "the meanie" during Nickels' first mayoral run, in 2001? I've known Nickels for 20 years, and if he's Boss Daley, then I'm Mike Royko.

"I wouldn't last a week in Chicago politics," Nickels said during our light-rail ride. "If I was some Chicago-style bully, cutting corners or whatever, do you think it would have taken so many years to get this train?"

Nickels guesses he attended at least 1,000 light-rail meetings since the mid-1980s — with community groups and with countless politicians. That's what it took. Stubbornness. Endurance. Not so much bullying.

"Our political culture here is, we avoid confrontation," Nickels said. "So we use process to do that. I have tried very consciously to change that pattern. Let's have the debate, let's hear from all parties, but at the end of it, somebody has to make a decision. To make something happen."

Whatever you think of your mayor — not much, according to the polls — in the end he got his train. He also seems to be getting his waterfront tunnel. He owns it all. The delays and cost overruns. But also the sense of a new era for the city that was palpable Saturday in the neighborhoods up and down the line.

Seattle finally stopped dithering. We built something. If that's the Chicago Way, I say: More, please.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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