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Originally published Friday, May 14, 2010 at 2:45 PM

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Guest columnist

Seattle's long and winding road toward light rail

Light rail is a reality in the Seattle area, serving thousands of people a day, after decades of sustained effort, writes former Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels. New wrinkles in the debate are important to hash out, but the region should not let them derail the progress that has been made.

Special to The Times

THERE are those who say the debate over light rail in Seattle began in November 1851, with the landing of the Denny party at Alki. In the 1920s, Mayor Bertha Knight Landes created a committee of businessmen to study rapid transit. Most however point to the defeat of the 1968 and 1970 Forward Thrust bond issues as the time when mass transit became political roadkill for a generation (Seattle's federal match went to Atlanta to build MARTA).

How far we have come. Thirteen light-rail stations now serve thousands of passengers every day (more than 18,000 a day in March), and we're just getting started! Some are suggesting a detour from our path. But we need to take a lesson from the prickly history of our region's debate, its starts and stops, and the challenge of building consensus on our path to light rail if we are to continue to push forward.

I got involved in 1988, co-sponsoring an advisory ballot asking King County voters whether to build a light-rail system to open in 2000. Nearly 70 percent said yes and it broke the political logjam.

After several more years of planning, the first vote to fund mass transit in 25 years was scheduled for a March 14, 1995, special election. In addition to commuter rail, the plan contained a surface light-rail system connecting Tacoma to Seattle, north to Lynnwood, and east across Lake Washington on Interstate 90 to Bellevue and Redmond.

The measure went down and history repeated itself. Mass transit once again was treated by many politicians in Olympia and the region as political roadkill.

Despite a close outcome, the votes were not evenly distributed — Seattle passed the measure, but the rest of King, Pierce and Snohomish counties voted no. Politically, it was necessary to show broad support, not just from a Seattle-dominated electorate.

Critics often bemoan the absence of leadership in our civic affairs, but our regional leaders responded to the defeat of the first regional transit authority plan with creativity and courage.

In the end the "Sound Move" plan was reduced and light rail scaled back to a line from the University of Washington to SeaTac. Added were park-and-ride lots, high-occupancy-vehicle access ramps and a concept called "sub-area equity." The election was set for Nov. 5, 1996.

This time voters in all three counties approved the plan!

At last it looked like smooth sailing for a regional mass-transit system.

It turned out the challenges of actually building a system were far greater than anyone had imagined and, around 2000-2001, the project almost imploded. But the Sound Transit Board persevered and hired an outstanding CEO in Joni Earl.

As Seattle's new mayor in 2002, I gathered all the city staff working on the project and let them know our job was to team with Sound Transit to make sure the system got built. (This was a relief to many staff members who really did not know that). We finally broke ground on Nov. 8, 2003, ending the debate over whether to build light rail.

The long-awaited line that began with the 1988 advisory ballot opened last summer.

The next line has already broken ground. Stations on Capitol Hill and Husky Stadium will open in 2016. A person on Capitol Hill will be able to get to the university or downtown in three minutes by light rail.

After the defeat of the infamous, doomed shotgun marriage of the 2007 Roads and Transit ballot measure, there was little political appetite for a transit measure the next year. Fortunately, there was a core of Sound Transit Board members willing to listen and we went to work. Ultimately, the board agreed upon a plan and it went on the 2008 ballot.

Despite the worst economic headlines of my lifetime, the $18 billion Sound Transit 2 measure passed with 57.02 percent voter approval. Light rail will expand north from the university to Snohomish County, south to Federal Way and east across Interstate 90 to Bellevue and out to Redmond. These projects will be complete in 14 years.

There are those who now advocate rapidly expanding the scope of the light-rail program — adding a Highway 520 bridge crossing to the already funded I-90 crossing and building spurs to other neighborhoods with as-yet-unidentified new taxes. Is the time right for a second light-rail crossing of Lake Washington or should we explore speeding up the 2020 opening of the Northgate extension by several years? These debates are important. But we should also learn from history and make sure they do not derail the progress we have made.

Our current set of projects funded in the 2008 vote represent one of the largest transit-construction programs in the United States. Have no illusions — there will be real challenges in building such a massive set of projects — there is a lot of hard work ahead. But when completed, 70 percent of the residences and 85 percent of the jobs in Metro Seattle will be within an easy bus ride, bike ride or walk to a rail station. With a capacity of 1 million passengers a day, it will transform how we get around.

Let's focus on keeping that promise as job one.

There have been many twists and turns in the many years that I have been involved in this epic journey.

It has been an amazing adventure. While certainly not easy, it was an incredible honor to work with the elected officials on the Sound Transit Board, the staff and particularly the interested citizens who have engaged, often passionately, in this saga. And it was never dull.

It has been a long and winding road to create a mass-transit system for Metro Seattle. We have come a long way and we have much work to accomplish in the next few years. I do wish the voters had approved the Forward Thrust plan in 1968, but what a ride our generation would have missed.

Greg Nickels was mayor of Seattle from 2002 to 2009 and president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. He recently completed a fellowship at the Institute of Politics at Harvard University and has been named a Distinguished Urban Fellow for Living Cities working on green jobs for urban areas.

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