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Sound Transit Light Rail: Up and Running

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Sound Transit  2/24/2011
A meeting of the Sound Transit Board.
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Sound Transit Capitol Committee Meeting  2/10/2011
Sound Transit Capitol Committee Meeting
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Sound Transit Board Meeting  1/27/2011
A meeting of the Sound Transit Board.
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The Latest News:

92,000 boardings on the first weekend of Sound Transit's light rail

On July 18, 2009, Sound Transit's 14-mile, $2.3 billion Link light rail opened for business. Light rail runs from downtown Seattle's Westlake station through the Rainier Valley to Tukwila. Free shuttle buses take passengers the additional 1.7 miles to Sea-Tac airport. The transit agency told SEATTLE CHANNEL that there were 92,000 boardings on the first weekend. The rides were free over the weekend, the atmosphere was festive and transit officials were very pleased with the turnout. By Monday morning, the train fare was $1.75 and The Seattle Times reported that the ridership was light but Sound Transit said that was expected. The transit agency projects that the ridership will reach 26,000 boardings by early 2010.

SEATTLE CHANNEL has created a primer on riding light rail by excerpting a press conference with Sound Transit boardmembers including former Mayor Greg Nickels and King County Councilmembers Dow Constantine and Larry Phillips. Earlier, SEATTLE CHANNEL's City Inside/Out took an in-depth look at the passionate debate over density around light rail stations in Seattle. Supporters, like SouthEast Effective Development's Earl Richardson, argue that light rail will promote economic development and environmental stewardship. Critics, including the Seattle Displacement Coalition's John Fox, claim that such density will lead to gentrification and sprawl. There are fifty-three other videos in SEATTLE CHANNEL's Sound Transit collection.

Previous updates:

Sound Transit adds service and riders
On May 30, 2009, Sound Transit added new transit service that come in the wake of voters passing Proposition One back in November 2008. Sound Transit has added a ninth Sounder commuter rail trip between Seattle and Tacoma and increased ST Express bus trips by 13,000 annual bus hours - 30 new trips daily on existing routes mostly during off-peak periods. By 2011, Sound Transit hopes to add 100,000 new annual bus hours. Here's a link to the details of the new service outlined in Sound Transit's Resolution 2009-10.

As noted by Seattle Transit Blog, Sound Transit also showed an eight percent increase in ridership in the first quarter of 2009. The transit agency notes, "While this increase is impressive, it actually represents a slowdown in the very high growth rate Sound Transit has been experiencing since early 2007 and undoubtedly reflects the current state of the economy."

Opening day set for Link light rail
On April 20, 2009, Sound Transit officially announced the first day of operations for Link light rail: Saturday, July 18, 2009. The 14-mile line will run from Westlake Center in downtown Seattle to Tukwila, just 1.7 miles shy of Sea-Tac Airport. "Frequent bus connector service will carry light rail passengers between Tukwila and Sea-Tac International Airport starting Monday, July 20 until the opening of direct airport service in December," according to Sound Transit. The trains are scheduled to run from 5 a.m. until 1 a.m. Monday through Saturday and 6 a.m. to midnight on Sundays. The ride will be free on opening day and the line is expected to attract around 100,000 people on that Saturday, Sound Transit's Chief Executive Officer Joni Earl told the Associated Press. Subsequently, Earl expects the line to attract an average of around 26,000 riders a day. The trains will run every 7 1/2 to 15 minutes and the adult fare will be $2.50. Riders will be able to use their King County Metro Transit bus passes called PugetPass to ride the trains.

Bus Tunnel reopens

After two years of construction, traffic jams and bus reroutes, commuters are breathing a sigh of relief. The Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel reopened Monday, September 24, 2007 just in time for the commute to work.

The tunnel received a multi-million dollar retrofit to accommodate Link Light Rail in 2009. Upgrades were also added to the tunnel including improved accessibility features for bus riders and signage. Now electronic reader boards will alert riders to bus time arrivals or potential delays.

During the closure, only buses were allowed on sections of Third Avenue. The "transit only" restrictions were made to keep traffic flowing in spite of the addition of dozens of buses. Other buses were rerouted to First, Second, Fourth and Fifth Avenues. Now that the tunnel is opened, many of those buses have resumed serviced in the tunnel, but Third Avenue remains "transit only" to ease traffic tension throughout downtown. Nearly 20 bus routes were moved from other streets onto Third Avenue.

Improvements for commuters
With more commuters waiting for their bus along Third Avenue, the city is teaming up with King County Metro and the Downtown Seattle Association to make improvements to Third Avenue.

They are working to keep trash picked up, install better lighting and improve safety. Seattle police patrols are visible along the busy roadway either on foot, bikes or horseback. They city has also hired a design team to work on visually improving the area.

The first part of the plan calls for these improvements from the Pike/Pine corridor through Blanchard Street in Belltown. But former Council Members Jan Drago and Peter Steinbrueck both expressed concern that Third Avenue near Pioneer Square be cleaned up as well. The issue is expected to stay in the Transportation Committee for a few more weeks.
Learn more about the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel

Can't find your downtown bus route? Check out the changes Metro made when the tunnel reopened.

Learn more about the Third Avenue Improvement plans.

Watch the September 25, 2007 Transportation Committee which discussed the Third Avenue improvements.

Link Light Rail Route:

Work is already in progress at several parts of the initial rail line.

  • Rainier Beach/South Henderson Street Station will be a street level station in the center of MLK Jr. Way South just south of Henderson Street. Improvements to the area will include new sidewalks, benches, bike racks and public art. There will be access to the Rainier neighborhoods.


  • Othello/New Holly Station will be a street level station in the center of MLK Jr. Way South between South Myrtle and South Othello streets. Riders will access the rail line from plazas on the northeast corners of Myrtle and Othello which will feature benches, artwork, landscaping and bike racks.


  • Columbia City/South Edmunds Station will be a street level station with side platforms along MLK Jr. Way South between South Alaska and South Edmunds streets. Street and pedestrian improvements in the area will give riders better access to the Columbia City neighborhoods.


  • Mount Baker/South McClellan Station will be an elevated tunnel just west of Rainier Avenue South and MLK Jr. Way South, south of South McClellan Street. Escalators and elevators will allow passengers to access the rail line from the street level. A bus transfer facility will be on the east side of Rainier Avenue South.


  • Beacon Hill Station will be 150 feet below the street surface of South Lander Street. Entrances will be located at the southeast corner of Beacon Avenue South and South Lander Street. High speed escalators will quickly take passengers down to the station platform.


  • SODO/South Lander Station will be a ground level station north of Lander Street. New bike and pedestrian paths will connect the area to the Mountain to Sound Greenway Trail.


  • Stadium/South Royal Brougham Way Station the street level station will be south of Royal Brougham way, adjacent to the Metro bus base. The platform will be equipped to handle event sized crowds. A bike and pedestrian path will follow along the light rail route and connect with the Mountain to Sound Greenway Trail.


  • International District/Chinatown Station is the only downtown station to be outside and will be located at the current station at South Jackson Street and Fifth Avenue South. The spirit of the International District will be incorporated into design elements of the station including symbols of the Chinese calendar and origami shapes.


  • Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel reopened September 24, 2007 after two years of reconstruction. The construction was needed for Sound Transit to retrofit the tunnel for buses and light rail service. Trains should be running through the tunnel in 2009.


    • Pioneer Square Station will be in the existing tunnel station under Third Avenue between Jefferson Street and Yesler Way. Entrances will be located in the Public Safety and Lyons buildings. The historic charm of Pioneer Square will be reflected in the design and materials used to update the tunnel.


    • University Street Station will incorporate some of the high tech world that surrounds it in the business district. Animated light works will flash messages and symbols across granite and glass walls in the platform area. The station will be located at the existing tunnel under Third Avenue between Union and Seneca streets. Entrances will be located at Cobb building, the Washington Mutual building and Benaroya Hall.


    • Westlake Station is expected to be the busiest of the light rail stations. Platforms will be wider to accommodate passengers from the downtown shopping area. The tunnel is in the same location under Pine Street between Third and Sixth avenues. Entrances are in the heart of the shopping district on the north and south sides of Pine Street near Nordstrom, Macy's, Coldwater Creek and Gap. Future plans call for additional entrances near Fifth and Sixth avenues.


    • Pine Street Stub Tunnel is on the north end of the Downtown Transit Tunnel. It is a short extension to the existing transit tunnel under Pine Street and will allow light rail trains to stop and reverse direction and make the University Link extension possible without any interruption to bus and rail service in the transit tunnel. During construction, Pine Street between Seventh and Boren Avenues has been reduced to westbound travel. The construction method is "cut-and-cover", in which the stub tunnel has been excavated from the surface with the holes capped by a temporary concrete deck to allow traffic to pass over while construction continues 40-90 feet below. The restoration of Pine Street is will occur in spring 2007.


Plans for the north link of the Link Light Rail line calls for stops at:

  • Capitol Hill
  • University of Washington
  • Brooklyn
  • Roosevelt
  • Northgate

The 3.15 mile route from downtown Seattle, through Capitol Hill to the University of Washington is expected to be the busiest segment of the Link Light Rail line. Once it's operational in 2030, Sound Transit leaders estimate nearly 40,000 riders daily will board the light rail both Capitol Hill and UW stops.

For a map of the Link Light Rail route, visit their Web site.

Third Avenue to remain transit only

With the priority of keeping traffic flowing in downtown, in July 2007, former Mayor Greg Nickels announced a portion of Third Avenue will remain transit only during peak travel times after the bus tunnel reopens.

The Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel has been closed for nearly two years to retrofit the tunnel for Link Light Rail. Bus routes were moved to surface streets and a section of Third Avenue was designated buses only to keep congestion down.

When the tunnel opens again on September 24, 18 routes will be moved to the tunnel. Metro plans on relocating stops for dozens of bus routes onto Third Avenue. Routes currently operating on First, Second, Fourth and Fifth Avenues will be moved to keep other traffic flowing through the downtown core.

A recent Metro report showed the restricted transit only hours of 6-9 a.m. and 3-6:30 p.m. helps traffic move through the city. Drivers will continue to have unlimited access to Third Avenue between 9 a.m. - 3 p.m. and on nights and weekends.

The light at the end of the light rail tunnel

In May 2007, the tunnel boring machine working on the Link Light Rail tunnel reached its destination: the other side of Beacon Hill.

The 300-foot long drill was used to bore through the hillside to create one of two tunnels for Seattle's new light rail line. Crews started the 4,300 foot long journey in January 2006. They excavated more than 50,000 cubic yards of dirt as the drill churned through the hillside. The tunnel was lined with more than 800 pre-cast concrete segments.

In June, the machine will be disassembles and transported back to the north side of the hill to start on the second tunnel. The fist tunnel is for the southbound light rail, the second will be for northbound trains. The tunnels will service the Beacon Hill Light Rail Station which will be 160 feet underground.

Construction of the light rail line began in 2003 and is more than 70 percent complete. Operators hope to have the route up and running by 2009. The route will begin at Westlake Plaza and run to Sea-Tac Airport. Stops will run through downtown, Beacon Hill, the Central District and Tukwila. Plans are in the works for an expansion of the line to Tacoma, as well as up to Capitol Hill, the University of Washington and Northgate.

To see the tunnel boring machine in action, watch the news segment of the 5/11/07 episode of City Inside/Out.

Light Rail link to head east and south of Seattle

Commuters crossing Lake Washington learned more about the proposed East Link Project from Sound Transit. Workshops held in late March and early April 2007 in Seattle and Eastside communities allowed participants to hear more about proposed stops and contribute ideas to make commuting in the Seattle area easier.

The proposed East Link Light Rail consists of 19 miles, connecting downtown Seattle, Mercer Island, Bellevue, Overlake, and Redmond via I-90. The project is an east-west extension of the Central Link Light Rail that ranges from Northgate to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Funding may also be available to extend the route south of Seattle to Tacoma. Original plans called the extension to run only to Fife.

Sound Transit receives surprise funding from President Bush

President George W. Bush's proposed Fiscal Year 2008 budget included an additional $10 million for Sound Transit's University Link Light Rail - money officials weren't expecting. The President's budget also included $70 million the agency was hoping to receive.

The University Link Light Rail extension is one of two national projects listed in the President's budget as "Proposed Full Funding Grant Agreements." Sound Transit officials plan to complete the grant application for the light rail route later this year. They expect to start construction on the route in 2009. The route would be an extension from downtown Seattle north through Capitol Hill to Husky Stadium.

The proposed $70 million would be used to help fund current light rail construction between downtown Seattle and Sea-Tac Airport. Sound Transit estimates to have that route open in 2009. The route includes stops in South Seattle and Tukwila.

UW Light Rail route gets key support

Good news for Seattle commuters: the planned Light Rail tunnel from Westlake Plaza to the University of Washington received key support from transportation officials.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said she'll recommend the link for $750 million from Congress. Peters made the announcement while touring Sound Transit's construction site in Seattle November 27, 2006.

Sound Transit officials will now spend about $35 million dollars to continue design work for the route and expansion. The federal funds will only cover a portion of the $1.7 billion dollar price tag.

Construction is expected to start on the three-mile route by 2009. The route will consist of a tunnel through Capitol Hill with one stop at Broadway and East John Street and an underground stop near Husky Stadium. A UW official says the University is supportive of the proposed stop at Husky Stadium and that they are finalizing the agreement with Sound Transit. The UW Light Rail route is expected to be open by 2016.

Officials estimate about 40,200 people will regularly use that route by 2030.

Background: Sound Transit

In 1996, voters in three counties—King, Pierce and Snohomish—created Sound Transit, a regional transit agency. Sound Transit operates the Sounder commuter trains from Tacoma to Everett and ST Express buses throughout the Puget Sound Region; the agency says it provides 14 million rides a year. Sound Transit is also set to open light rail from downtown Seattle to Tukwila—just shy of the Sea-Tac airport—in July 2009. The agency hopes to have light rail running to the airport itself by December 2009.

Ever since the election that created Sound Transit, the agency has been in the middle of the region’s debate about transportation. Here is some more detail about each of their three “lines of business.”

According to Sound Transit, the Sounder commuter trains run 74 miles on railroad tracks between Everett and Tacoma every weekday. “On the north line, [four] round-trips connect Everett, Mukilteo and Edmonds with Seattle… In the south line, six round-trips run between Tacoma, Puyallup, Sumner, Auburn, Kent, Tukwila and downtown Seattle; a future extension south to Lakewood is under development.” The Sounder runs on “existing freight tracks owned by” Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Company and provided two million rides in 2007, according to the agency.

Sound Transit operates 25 express bus routes throughout the three county region. They provide passengers with 10 million trips a year, according to the agency. Sound Transit reported in April 2008, “ST Express is spending more than $800 million on more than three dozen new or expanded transportation improvement projects to enhance transit speed and reliability.” These projects include park-and-ride lots, transit lanes, and transit access to High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV or carpool) lanes.

The initial main segment of the Link Light Rail line will run 14 miles from Tukwila to the Westlake Center in downtown Seattle on elevated tracks, alongside surface streets and in tunnels. Construction of the 1.7 mile line from Tukwila to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport is also under way and is expected to be open shortly after the mainline.

While crews are busy working on the southern portion of the line, Sound Transit officials are working to expand the service north and east. In April 2006, the Sound Transit Board of Directors approved $1.7 billion University Link extension from Westlake Center to the University of Washington, scheduled to open in 2017. In November 2008, voters in the three county region ratified Sound Transit’s plans to add 37 miles of light rail to the region over the next fifteen years including extensions to the north -- Northgate, Shoreline and Lynnwood -- the south -- Federal Way -- and the east -- across the I-90 bridge to Mercer Island, Bellevue and Redmond.

Who’s Involved?
Sound Transit
Seattle Department of Transportation
Washington State Department of Transportation
Federal Transit Administration

Additional Resources:

Price tag:

In 1996, voters in the three county area agreed to spend $3.9 billion to fund the initial phase of Sound Transit’s three-pronged transit system. Two taxes were approved to finance the first phase of Sound Transit, a motor vehicle excise (or car tabs) tax of 0.3 percent and a sales tax of 0.4 percent. In 2008, voters approved another 0.5 percent sales tax for Sound Transit 2, a $22.8 billion, 15-year package that includes expansions to light rail, commuter rail and express buses. Sound Transit also has received hundreds of millions in federal and state grants to support its projects.

Project Timeline: (from Sound Transit)

  • July 18, 2009, Link light rail 14 miles from downtown Seattle to Tukwila opens
  • December 2009, Link light rail 1.7 miles from Tukwila to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport scheduled to open
  • April 2017 Link light rail 3 miles from downtown Seattle under Capitol Hill to University of Washington scheduled to open
  • 2023 Link light rail expansions north to Shoreline and Lynnwood, east to Mercer Island, Bellevue and Redmond, and south to Federal Way scheduled to open

Share your thoughts:

What are your thoughts about Sound Transit's plan? Share your thoughts using the links below, and be sure to check back soon with us at Seattle Channel to read more about the status of the projects. Use the links below to share your thoughts with:

If you have any questions or comments on this article, or if you have an In-Depth story idea, contact SEATTLE CHANNEL, contact@seattlechannel.org or 206-684-8821.

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