The galling irony about living in Seattle prior to 2009 was that for all our Pacific Rim, tech-city pretensions, there was no rapid mass transit here. Unlike supposedly backward flyover country like Minneapolis and Denver, and even carcentric LA, where rapid transit opened in 2004, 1994, and 1990 respectively, Seattle commuters were still stuck in traffic. It seemed like we were fated to second-class city status, and when light rail debuted, it not only remedied the past, it ushered in the future.
Seattle actually turned down $900 million in federal money in 1970 ($5.5 billion today) giving up a chance for a world-class mass transit system; Oklahoma City may have our basketball team, but thanks to the losing 1970 Seattle ballot measure known as Forward Thrust, Atlanta, which swooped in and took the money originally earmarked for Seattle, has our rapid transit system. It opened in 1979.
Realizing we’d screwed up the first time, in 1996 voters passed Sound Transit 1, which called for a $3.9 billion light rail system. It wasn’t a done deal. With cost overruns, lawsuits, Republican opposition, and Southeast Seattle neighborhoods against the project, the plan appeared doomed. In fact, a follow-up 2007 measure to expand light rail beyond the 1996 mandate got crushed at the polls.
But there was a silver lining. You see, the 2007 plan was coupled with funding for roads; it turned out Seattle voters actually wanted as much rail as they could get. When a rail-only measure returned in 2008—backed by a reformed ST agency that was set to start opening stations the following year—voters passed the $17.8 billion light rail expansion plan.
In 2009, almost as a cosmic reward for the 2008 vote, Sound Transit finally opened the initial 14-mile line between Sea-Tac airport and Westlake. And this March, Sound Transit, edging north, is opening two more stations, one in Capitol Hill and one at Husky Stadium. In 2021, Sound Transit will open in Roosevelt and Northgate. And in 2023 trains will run to Redmond and Lynnwood, making good on 2008’s mandate.
That brings us to the 2016 vote, which, if passed in November, will add more lines within Seattle—and extend lines to Everett and Tacoma.
Seattle hasn’t only outgrown its 1970s parochialism, it’s also outgrown its city limits and evolved into a bona fide metropolitan region. —Josh Feit