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Originally published Thursday, July 16, 2009 at 4:30 PM

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Guest columnist

Sound Transit's light-rail grand opening shows region is on the right track

As Sound Transit begins operation of its light-rail system Saturday, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray shares credit not only with community leaders but voters who approved the initial ballot measure in 1996. She notes that November's vote to extend Sound Transit bus and rail shows voters remain committed.

Special to The Times

WHEN Sound Transit train doors open for the first time on Saturday, riders will have many people to thank. And they can start with themselves.

The journey to light rail's grand opening began over a decade ago when voters in three counties approved a tax plan proposed by Sound Transit's board to fund a new, cooperative regional bus and rail transit system.

That vote was a leap of faith. It was also the beginning of a partnership among people who shared a vision for the future that we all want for our families, our economy and our region.

With that 1996 vote, Puget Sound residents said "yes" to a transit system that did not just consist of isolated pieces. We wanted buses and rail, and we wanted them to connect and to connect us.

We said "yes" to a sustainable transportation system that would reduce congestion with environmentally friendly technology that reflected our region's deep respect for the outdoors.

We said "yes" to living in a region where economic growth and prosperity are fueled by the hard work and ingenuity of our people and where our safety, mobility and efficiency are high priorities.

And, beginning with that vote, we committed to sharing the sacrifice to make it happen.

No one predicted the roller-coaster ride Sound Transit would face moving forward. But we refused to let our economic growth be held captive by either traffic or political gridlock.

As an original supporter and the chairman of the Senate committee that oversees America's federal transportation funding, I advocated for Sound Transit in Washington, D.C.

I secured $3 million in federal funding for the environmental and planning work that made Sound Transit eligible to apply for hundreds of millions of dollars in federal transit startup funds.

But it wasn't easy.

When the agency stumbled under financial troubles and lacked oversight and accountability, I demanded agency officials get their house in order. Sound Transit got the message and got it together. Because they stepped up, we were able to convince two presidential administrations, Bill Clinton's and George W. Bush's, to stay on board.

And I've been proud to secure more than $1.3 billion for related transit projects, ranging from light rail to buses to park-and-ride lots, because these are the smart, long-term investments our federal government should partner on with local communities.

Sound Transit is more than a transportation system, it's a job-generator.

The planning and construction of light rail from Seattle to Tukwila has created more than 4,000 jobs directly and 30,000 indirectly.

And when the doors open, our transit system will help attract new business, create more jobs and make our region more productive long-term.

If we're serious about ending our oil addiction and addressing climate change, transportation must be a major focus. In Washington, transportation accounts for nearly half of our total greenhouse-gas emissions. Sound Transit will get cars off the roads and improve the quality of our environment.

Thanks to the leadership of Sound Transit's Joni Earl, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, Congressman Norm Dicks, former King County Executive Ron Sims and many others, we worked through financial issues, answered tough questions and did the hard work to keep moving and extend light rail to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

In November, voters approved an expansion of bus and rail to the north, south and east, showing a renewed commitment to our economy and environment.

At times, Sound Transit has felt like the Little Engine that Could. It took the belief, commitment and sacrifice of an entire region to get us here today. And when doors open on Saturday, it will be clear that Puget Sound residents not only thought we could, but indeed we did, make a difference. Thanks to partnership and shared sacrifice, Sound Transit is set to get our economy and our environment back on track.

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray is chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee and a key proponent of light rail.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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