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Originally published July 12, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 12, 2009 at 7:11 PM

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Get ready, Seattle: You're about to be a light-rail town

At last, Seattle is about to become a light-rail town. On Saturday, the first passengers will board the Sound Transit trains from Westlake Center through Rainier Valley to Tukwila — and behind them is nearly a century of failed proposals to build a big transit system through Seattle.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

At last, Seattle is about to become a light-rail town.

On Saturday, the first passengers will board the Sound Transit trains from Westlake Center through Rainier Valley to Tukwila — putting behind them nearly a century of failed proposals to build a big transit system through Seattle.

The initial $2.3 billion, 14-mile segment took five years to build and was filled with engineering challenges and political suspense.

The project features a unique deep station within the soft soils of Beacon Hill, and the nation's only tunnel where buses and trains share the same stations — downtown. Managers coped with toxic soil, sinkholes, street protests seeking more jobs for African Americans and a couple of minor train-car collisions.

One worker died in a supply-train crash during Beacon Hill tunneling. That stretch was so difficult that it left no time to spare in the final construction schedule, and it spooked transit-board members into canceling a deep station they had promised for First Hill.

"Light-rail years are like cat years," said Ahmad Fazel, director of the stressful light-rail effort.

On the upside, the project provided more than 4,000 short- and long-term jobs. And trains will serve riders every 7 ½ minutes at peak times. Two more miles open later this year to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

But the line is four to six times costlier than other light-rail startups in western states. And with an estimated 26,600 average weekday trips predicted next year, the trains often will appear mostly empty, like the South Lake Union streetcar.

Ridership should grow by 2016, when a tunnel to Capitol Hill and Husky Stadium lets students and employees from the south suburbs ride 19 miles from the airport to the University of Washington campus. Eventually, it will connect to north Federal Way, Overlake and Lynnwood in a 53-mile network that Sound Transit says will attract 280,000 daily trips in 2030.

Transit: a history

If you lived in Seattle in 1891, you could ride the new electric streetcars that replaced horse-drawn trains. Cable cars climbed Madison Street and ran down to Lake Washington. A longer train turned into Rainier Valley toward Kent. Trestles in the mud flats supported elevated tracks to West Seattle.

Construction visionaries complained about traffic congestion as long ago as 1911, when engineer Virgil Bogue proposed underground and elevated trains to cope with the city's tight "hourglass shape," plus a tunnel beneath Lake Washington. Voters rejected his plan, saying it would cost too much. Again in 1926, a city committee urged fast rail to staunch the loss of customers on Seattle's declining streetcar routes. Seattle asked the state in vain to put rails into the Interstate 5 express lanes, designed in the late 1950s. After the 1962 World's Fair, experts studied stretching its one-mile tourist monorail to Shoreline.

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Rail measures lost public votes in King County in 1968 and 1970. Federal aid shifted to Atlanta, and buses flourished here. Much later, Seattle voters passed monorail measures four times before canceling a line in 2005, due to a revenue shortage; the unbuilt project cost drivers $124 million in car-tab taxes.

Rails were embedded in the downtown bus tunnel in 1989, a symbolic commitment to try again. (They were installed incorrectly, and Sound Transit would replace them in 2007.)

Another regional transit package, including light rail to Tacoma, reached the ballot in 1995 but lost. A year later, Sound Transit won by offering a shorter line from the University District to SeaTac, and more express buses.

The agency claimed its cost figures were "extremely conservative," but in fact they were too low by half. After a management shake-up and scolding by federal inspectors, the agency under new chief executive Joni Earl produced realistic, higher numbers by late 2001 — and those have held up. Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Norm Dicks lobbied to save a $500 million federal grant.

Two clever moves prevented a collapse. A committee that included former Mayor Charles Royer and Jim Ellis, a leader in earlier pro-rail efforts, advocated breaking ground on a shorter south-end line. They guessed correctly the south line would help whet the public appetite for more. And years earlier, lawyers wrote an escape clause that let the agency shorten its line or extend taxes indefinitely, without a public revote that opponents demanded.

Politicians OK'd big landmark stations, tunnels, spans through Tukwila and a winding route to reach and redevelop Rainier Valley neighborhoods, while calling Link an investment in the next century.

The first line is being finished $100 million below the official federal figure of $2.4 billion, which included a financial cushion.

Light Rail on the ballot

Link has been deemed a "light-metro" hybrid by some transit wonks. In downtown Seattle, the trains go faster than downtown Portland's surface trains, which move not much faster than a pedestrian. But with 28 street crossings in Rainier Valley, capacity and speed here are less than with a big-city subway.

Millions were spent for oversized 400-foot-long stations — a nod to the future when four-car trains will be needed if the Greater Seattle population grows 1.2 million as planners warn.

Over the years, a collection of budget hawks, bus supporters, monorailists and road warriors opposed the agency, saying fixed rail reaches too few places and people to justify its prodigious costs here.

But in 2008, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels cajoled fellow transit-board members to put more rail on the ballot, after a combined roads-and-transit package tanked the year before. The $18 billion measure won decisively, buoyed by younger, pro-Obama voters.

Despite a campaign slogan of "Mass Transit Now," the full lines are 15 years from completion and taxes will last at least through the 2030s.

To reach Tacoma and Everett, a third ballot plan would need to be approved, continuing this odyssey four decades beyond its 1996 launch.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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